Ethnic Health Care Systems Strained in Myanmar Amid Pandemic

When February's military takeover of Myanmar led to the collapse of the central health care system, independent ethnic organizations that had operated for decades on the Southeast Asian country's borders stepped in. They provided basic medical services, treated COVID-19-patients and occasionally even tended to injuries from armed skirmishes.

But a fierce new wave of coronavirus cases, and myriad other challenges — closed borders, shrinking support from international donors, and a crackdown on aid by the military, which has been accused of hoarding medical supplies for its own use — are stretching their abilities to the limit.

“There is no transportation available to get proper medicine and food supplies,” a doctor working at a makeshift clinic in the jungle of eastern Myanmar told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “There are not enough oxygen cylinders in our area and clinic. Because of heavy rain, there is also difficulty to even get clean water.”

The doctor’s name is being withheld to protect them from retaliation.

As of Wednesday, Myanmar had more than 363,000 cases of COVID-19, according to state-owned news media. That number is thought to be a vast undercount, as testing in the country of about 55 million people is limited. Cases first spiked in June, and many hospitals have been forced to turn away patients because of staffing shortages. Oxygen and medical supplies have been scarce, with the military accused of hoarding supplies for its own hospitals.

The per capita death rate in Myanmar was the worst in Southeast Asia during one week of July, when bodies were lined up outside overwhelmed crematoriums. The number of deaths is also likely an undercount, given that only those who die at medical facilities are included in the official figures.