Like so many countries in Asia and in the rest of the world, the coronavirus has also broken out in Myanmar. The country has closed its borders, and all foreign travellers - with or without a visa - are no longer allowed into the country. Myanmar has always had a relatively weak healthcare system, and now that it is confronted with a global pandemic, there are serious concerns on how the country will handle this crisis, especially in the border areas where armed conflicts frequently happen.
Coronavirus in Myanmar: what do we know?
On 30 March 2020, Myanmar confirmed the first fatality due to the coronavirus. The 69 year old man in question had been to Australia and Singapore before falling ill and eventually dying in a hospital in Yangon. At first sight, the coronavirus outbreak in Myanmar seems very mild. According to the official numbers, 127 cases of infection with the coronavirus have been confirmed, with 5 deaths as a result. But both within Myanmar and abroad, people are aware that these numbers don’t tell the full story. Under the military junta, the healthcare system of Myanmar has been neglected for years, and the result is that there isn’t nearly enough test capability to get a concrete picture of the seriousness of the outbreak.
Myanmar locked down
As the first cases of coronavirus came from abroad, the government of Myanmar took extreme steps to curb the spread of the virus. One part of this is a complete stop on all foreign flights going to the country. Travellers from abroad can no longer enter Myanmar. This concerns both tourists from neighbouring countries who can travel without a visa, and travellers that need a Myanmar visa. The visa system itself is still operational, but issued visas for Myanmar can no longer be used to travel to the country can no longer be used to travel to the country. It is unclear how long this measure will last.
However, the steps taken by the government do not impact the stream of Myanmarese migrants that were working abroad and are now quickly trying to return back home. These people frequently work in countries where the outbreak of the coronavirus is more severe than in Myanmar, but are allowed to return without further checking. The minister of healthcare of Myanmar warned that this could lead to a “massive outbreak”.
Conflicts in the border areas
Myanmar is a country that has suffered from religious and ethnic tensions for decades. This has led to armed conflicts on more than one occasion. Agreements and armistices are often broken after a few months, by armed militias or by the army of Myanmar. The conflicts primarily take place in the border areas of Myanmar, such as Kachin in the north and Rakhine in the west. As a result, the government often has little to say in these areas. Local militias are the law. This has not changed with the coronavirus crisis. Due to the almost complete blokkade of these areas, the inhabitants there are often on their own. They have to improvise with the limited means they have at their disposal, and make their own rules to limit the chances of infection. The risk that the outbreak of the coronavirus will be especially severe in these areas is therefore large.