A country that kills its health workers, now a regional COVID-19 hotspot
By Negaya Chorley, Chief Executive Officer, Results International Australia
The US and China have reportedly just brokered a deal that would block Myanmar’s military leaders from addressing next week’s United Nation’s General Assembly.
It represents a chink of light in an otherwise dark cloud that has hung over Myanmar since the military coup in February this year. Until now international efforts to hold the military accountable have been too weak to stop the killing, the torture and imprisonment of dissidents.
Meanwhile, a third wave of COVID-19 is decimating the country. Britain has warned that half of Myanmar’s 54 million people could be infected this month. Although there is limited official testing being done, anecdotal reports suggest the pandemic is gripping the country and has brought an already struggling health system to its knees.
Myanmar is not alone in its life-and-death fight against COVID-19. Yet while most countries are hailing their frontline health workers as heroes, in Myanmar many health workers are being hunted down, locked-up, tortured and even killed.
Since the February coup that ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government there has been a wave of protests and a popular Civil Disobedience Movement CDM.
Medical workers were among the first group to go on strike as part of the movement. The military has been ruthless in hunting them down. According to human rights groups (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners) at least 72 health workers – including the head of the vaccination program, are detained with another 600 arrest warrants for doctors and nurses. There are harrowing accounts of medical staff being beaten, tortured, and even shot.
The ruling junta has weaponised COVID-19 in its effort to crush its opponents. Soldiers have seized oxygen supplies and looted community run clinics. And military attacks continue in ethnic states where there is resistance, which has displaced an estimated 230,000 people since the coup.
Aid groups have been unable to get permits to bring in lifesaving COVID supplies, and critical programs have been suspended.
It is a tragedy that will have profound implications for the region in terms of the spread of COVID-19.
The collapse of the health system also represents a tragic setback to the country’s modest progress in fighting other diseases such as TB, HIV, and malaria and in the areas of child and maternal health. Save the Children estimate one million children have not received essential vaccines since the coup.
Given Australia is fighting its own battle with COVID-19, you may be forgiven for thinking we need to keep our own resources at home. But Myanmar’s deepening crisis is not about a lack of vaccines, oxygen or PPE, it is a failure of international diplomacy to put pressure on an illegitimate military that is not only killing its own people, it is jeopardising the region’s health security.
Given Australia’s strong historical ties with the country and our fundamental belief in human rights, we should be leading the way in exerting diplomatic pressure. Firstly, we need to place sanctions on individuals and companies associated with the junta just like those enforced by the US, UK, Canada and the European Union.
Australian aid funding should be directed to help displaced people on the Myanmar Thai border. There should also be strenuous efforts made to develop and implement a border-wide COVID-19 vaccination program.
Australia also needs to support ASEAN leaders and the five-point plan they agreed with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing in Jakarta in April this year. There has been little progress here, Australia should encourage ASEAN leaders to push for compliance on the plan.
COVID-19 doesn’t recognise borders – Myanmar’s health crisis will have implications for the whole region. It’s a crisis we ignore at our peril.