Myanmar Faces COVID Vaccination Woes as Health System Under Threat

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Myanmar’s COVID-19 battle is facing further complications amid the fallout from February’s military coup.

This week, the opposition National Unity Government declared a “defensive war” against the ruling junta government. Next week, the United Nations will hold its 76th General Assembly, and will decide whether the junta or the civilian government will be recognized for a U.N seat.

The country is still fighting a third COVID-19 wave at a time of increasing political tensions. According to World Health Organization data, more than 400,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in Myanmar, with more than 16,000 dead

There are concerns, though, that those figures are much higher.

Sasa, a medical doctor from Chin State and the NUG’s minister of international cooperation who only goes by one name, told VOA thousands more may have died than officially recorded.

“We are calculating the number from 40,000 to 400,000 could have died. … It’s impossible for us to understand the level of death. Half the population, 35 to 37 million in Myanmar could be infected by COVID-19 … [it is] a real scale of things,” he told VOA via video call.

“So many people died, we cannot even, and there is no way for us to, count the deaths. The line on the oxygen, and the line to the cemetery, those are the … lines for queue in the last few months,” he added.

Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, said in July that that half of Myanmar’s 54 million population could quickly be infected with the virus.

Dr. Sasa, who is on the run and wanted by the military, blames the junta for turning plans to vaccinate the population “upside-down.”

“If there was no military coup in Myanmar, at least 30% of our population would have been vaccinated already. I was a part of the leadership in February, I was there in Naypyitaw [Myanmar’s capital] … our plan was to get vaccinations, at least 30 million dosages of Indian [vaccines]. We have paid the money for that, we have ordered for that, and starting to vaccinate,” he added.

Background, medical workers targeted

The country has been in crisis since the coup. A mass uprising opposed the takeover, with thousands protesting in the streets. The Civil Disobedience Movement, a nationwide campaign that has seen Myanmar’s essential workers go on strike, aiming to stifle the military-controlled economy, has spearheaded the demonstrations.

Medical workers led the anti-military campaign, but that has not prevented the military from targeting the leaders. According to the monitoring group Insecurity Insight, 252 incidents have been reported against medical personnel and facilities in Myanmar, with at least 25 killed.
Myanmar’s only has 3% of the population fully vaccinated, even though the junta has received millions of donated vaccine doses from India, China and Russia. Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing aims to vaccinate 50 million of the total population by the end of the year.