Myanmar's military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (File Photo)
Myanmar's military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (File Photo)

Myanmar doctors hiding, being hunted by junta amid COVID-19 crisis

ANI | Updated: Jul 22, 2021 08:45 IST

Naypyitaw [Myanmar], July 22 (ANI): Myanmar doctors are in hiding and are being hunted by the junta as the COVID-19 crisis ravages the country. They blamed the military for using the pandemic as a weapon against the people.
As Myanmar now faces its worst COVID-19 outbreak, doctors and volunteers who spoke to CNN accused the military of using the pandemic as a weapon against the people.
They said the military has restricted critical oxygen sales to the public and refused sick patients at military-run hospitals. COVID-19 outbreaks have also reached prisons, including the main jail, Insein, housing anti-coup protesters.
Images from the biggest city, Yangon, show families of the sick waiting at oxygen plants in the hopes of refilling tanks, crematoriums packed with mourners and coffins, and funeral workers and volunteers in white hazmat suits working non-stop at cemeteries to bury rows of shrouded bodies.
Terrified residents are choosing to self-treat at home, doctors say. When they do go to hospital they are often turned away as the facilities are running out of oxygen, treatments and beds, and there's not enough staff to treat patients, they said.
On Wednesday, the military-controlled health ministry reported 6,093 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total confirmed to 246,663. There were also 247 reported fatalities, with the confirmed death toll from COVID-19 5,814. But doctors and volunteer groups say those numbers are woefully under-reported.
A once-promising vaccine program has crumbled under junta rule, and minimal testing, a lack of official data, and widespread public distrust of the military means no one has a clear idea of the extent of the crisis, reported CNN.
Before the coup, Myanmar was one of the first countries in the region to procure vaccines and civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi had planned to launch a nationwide vaccine program in April.
After the military takeover, COVID-19 testing, prevention measures and the vaccine program collapsed in the chaos of the upheaval.
Civil society has been eroded and the already-vulnerable health care system has collapsed. Doctors and other health workers, many of whom went on strike to protest the coup, have been forced into hiding to escape attacks and arrest from junta forces.
In the absence of a functioning medical system or official national COVID-19 plan, and with a public distrustful of anything linked to the military junta, a network of underground doctors and volunteer groups are trying to plug the gaps, reported CNN.

Every day, desperate family members scour Facebook groups and encrypted apps searching for oxygen supplies for their loved ones. The words "urgent," "emergency" and "please help me" repeated in a constant flow of desperate messages.
In the state media, the military at first denied there was a lack of oxygen, blaming shortages on "unscrupulous persons" spreading rumours.
"We have enough oxygen," coup leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing said, according to the Global New Light of Myanmar. "Some try to do negative activities while gaining political profits. They buy the oxygen cylinder and spread the rumour that the country does not have oxygen anymore," reported CNN.
In recent days, however, the military-controlled health ministry said it was ramping up its coronavirus response. State media has been full of stories of oxygen deliveries to hospitals across the country, the building of COVID-19 centers and oxygen plants and more treatments being made available for coronavirus patients.
But residents say the situation on the ground is different. CNN was unable to reach the military and military-run health ministry for comment on the outbreak and the state of oxygen supplies.
The regime has also called on doctors, nurses, and other experts to volunteer at public hospitals and COVID-19 centers "due to a lack of manpower." But doctors say the military cannot guarantee their safety and they fear arrest and possible torture.
Doctors were key drivers of the initial protest movement, and many have been arrested by the Junta for their involvement.
"There have been 240 documented cases of attacks on health care facilities and health care professionals. As of last week, you have over 500 outstanding arrest warrants for doctors and nurses," said Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar.
Doctors forced to go into hiding to evade arrest have set up underground networks of clinics and tele-consultation services. Each day they answer hundreds of requests from sick patients, on apps, social media, and video platforms -- however they can reach the people, reported CNN.
"We are treating at least 150 people per day. More than half of those patients complain of fever, anosmia (lack of smell) and Covid-like symptoms," said the doctor, who did not want to be identified. "Half of patients are severe cases."
Myanmar, a country already on its knees following February's military coup -- with people queuing for hours for oxygen in major cities and the seriously ill dying at home because they are too scared to visit understaffed, ill-equipped hospitals is facing surge in COVID-19 and military junta's crackdown has made the matter worse for the population.
During months of bloody political turmoil, Myanmar's security forces have killed more than 900 people, including shooting protesters dead in the streets, and laid siege to entire villages. Thousands have been detained in the ongoing crackdown, with widespread reports of torture. (ANI)