Myanmar is grappling with a Covid crisis, and half of its 54 million people could be infected with the virus in the next two weeks, Britain has warned.
The South-East Asian nation has been in turmoil since a military coup in February ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. Hundreds have died in protests and other coup-related violence, and now thousands more are being caught up in Myanmar’s worst Covid outbreak, which has been exacerbated by the political turmoil.
Infections have surged from about 50 a day in June to an average of more than 5,000 since mid-July. Officially, there are more than 289,000 confirmed cases and 8,500 deaths reported in the country, although analysts say the true toll is likely to be higher given limited testing.
Myanmar’s already run-down healthcare system has buckled under a deadly delta variant-fueled wave of Covid, together with a shortage of staff and vital medical supplies. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, doctors and nurses were some of the highest-profile workers to go on strike to express their opposition to the seizure of power. Dozens have since been detained and others are in hiding in fear of their lives.
The UN says that junta forces have engaged in at least 260 attacks against medical staff and facilities, claiming the lives of at least 18 people. At least 67 health care officials are in detention, while arrest warrants have been issued for more than 600 others.
Reports from within Myanmar speak of people queuing up for hours to buy oxygen tanks for their loved ones, overwhelmed crematoriums, and overflowing burial grounds in the capital, Yangon.
"The coup has resulted in a near total collapse of the healthcare system, and health care workers are being attacked and arrested," British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward told an informal Security Council discussion on Myanmar on Thursday.
"The virus is spreading through the population, very fast indeed. By some estimates, in the next two weeks, half of the population of Myanmar could be infected with Covid," she said.
Ambassador Woodward said it was vital that the Security Council consider how to implement Resolution 2565, which it adopted in February and demands ceasefires in conflict zones to allow for the safe delivery and distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
The turmoil has disrupted Myanmar’s own vaccination programme. Just over 3 percent of Myanmar’s population – or 1.75 million people – had been vaccinated by mid-July, according to authorities.
On Thursday, state media reported a vaccination drive had started in Myanmar’s main prison where many of the pro-democracy protesters are being held, a week after activists said inmates had protested over a major Covid outbreak there. More than 600 prisoners were vaccinated in Yangon's Insein prison on Wednesday, and more would be inoculated in the coming days depending on vaccine supplies, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said, citing prison officials.
Last week, 2 million Sinopharm doses arrived from China, but they will be prioritised for people living along Myanmar’s border with China.