Dr. Su Yin Htun
Associate Professor, Department of Law, Mandalay, Myanmar
Compared with its neighbors, Myanmar reported it first case of the Coronavirus only on 23 March 2020, at the height of the pandemic. In fact, prior to the declaration of the first case, foreign diplomatic communities have already raised concerns about a potential catastrophe in the country. As of 2nd April 2020, 20 confirmed cases had been reported in Tee-tain, Yangon, Mandalay, Kyauk-Mei and Pauk Khaung. Of these, 14 are imported cases and six are from local transmission. Among the affected areas, the pandemic’s impact on Yangon is expected to be the epicenter of the outbreak, it is congested area with a 5 million population. On the day of writing this article, a 69 year- old COVID-19 patient who suffered from nasal cancer reportedly died in Waibargi Hospital in Yangon.
In order to combat the spread of the virus, Myanmar government has formed on 13 March 2020 the national-level Central Committee on Prevention, Control and Treatment of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and on 30 March, the Emergency Response Committee to Control COVID-19 chaired by Vice President. Although the government announced the temporary suspension of all types of visas for foreign nationals from all countries visiting Myanmar, nationals and migrants from other countries are allowed to enter in the border checkpoints and international airports as well.
In the meantime, people may suffer substantive rights and procedural rights, such as the right to life, right to health and right to information by infection of COVID-19. Among these, marginalized people, migrants and refugees are the most vulnerable people. As legal migrants entered from Thailand into the Myawaddy township in in Kayin State, there was a lack of virus testing systems, and poor crowd control to ensure social distancing. The international airport is not better with safety measures to test virus for arrivals that resulted in the discovery of 14 positive cases from abroad. Currently, many garment factories, local markets, restaurants and some shopping malls have already shut down for several reasons such as the shortage of raw materials, restrictions of exports, and unexpected risks. Because of this, unemployment problems are expected, and the GDP growth will shrink.
The government officially declared the Arakan Army as terrorist group on 24 March. The ongoing internal armed conflicts in Rakhine State may create a humanitarian crisis. Due to the conflicts, people will encounter force-displacement and lack of adequate living standards without any health care. Furthermore, displaced Rohingya people, now estimated to number of approximately one million in Myanmar refugee camps and hundreds of thousands in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The crowded camp conditions and poor health infrastructure is expected to worsen the impact of Covid-19.
Moreover, the Government has blocked internet access in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States threatening the people’s right to access critical information on the pandemic, among others. At this time, this right is critical and urgently needed by everyone with the disease being an imminent threat to people lives. People need to get information through all channels both traditional and digital means. Presently, most information may be obtained from daily newspapers, and social media mainly Facebook. According to Internet World Stats, some 40.8% of entire population in Myanmar are Facebook users. However, the rest of the population may not be able to access social media and may rely on traditional radio and television channels. From my own observation, TV channels give information through formal news in MRTV, MWD, MITV, including very small text the bottom of the screen in some programs on “breaking news”. And, not much news is available in English language in order for foreigners to better understand the situation in Myanmar. In addition, 225 websites are tremendously banned pursuant to S.77 of Telecommunication Law that is provided for national security. And, government pronounced that fake news and rumors will be punished by S.12 of Prevention and Control of Communicable Disease Law.
Myanmar government is now trying to prevent and control of COVID-19 by improving public health services. The Ministry of Health and Sports is particularly responsible to fulfill the right to health. Though this is not enough, especially for a country already affected by conflicts, poverty and corruption. At present, however, there is inadequate treatment equipment and medicine for the needs of the country. Refugees are especially at risk since there is no policy to provide humanitarian aid and health care measures for them. Furthermore, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission has been silent on providing human rights protection on vulnerable people. It is quite certain that the longer the corona virus pandemic lasts, the more vulnerable the people will become. In conclusion, humanitarian assistance together with full protection of rights and freedoms should be the essential focus for refugees, marginalized people and daily workers in time of COVID-19.
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Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018, UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/statistics
Internet Usage in Asia as of 31st January 2020, https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats3.htm
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