Ngwe Min Tar Yar (pseudonym) shares his knowledge of intercommunal support in Myanmar for people grappling with COVID-19 and the coup.
Myanmar’s military unexpectedly announced the coup on 1 February, 2021, creating immediate economic shocks across the country. On the very first day, people lined up at the banks and withdrew their savings. Panic buying occurred in local markets. Commodity prices did not rise noticeably, but there were long queues of customers at most shops. After a few weeks, cash fell short as people started to lose trust in the government and the banks. However, mobile banking services of Myanmar’s AYA, CB and KBZ banks, and mobile money services such as Wave Money and KBZ pay were still operating, offering the public reassurance.
The coup throttled economic activity. Local businesses slowed down. Foreign companies decided to exit. Garment factories closed. Banks could not function normally. Black markets emerged.
Shortly after the coup, mass protests hit the streets amidst lockdown restrictions. Protesters were afraid of COVID-19 and wore masks all along. Despite the risks of protesting during the COVID-19 pandemic, many viewed the coup as a national nightmare robbing them of their future. Many wanted to believe that the coup would be a temporary political conflict between political elites. However, as time passed it became clear that this power struggle would not be resolved quickly. Therefore, many forms of anti-coup movements took to the streets. Prominent among these movements was the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), through which health care workers, bankers, engineers, teachers, lawyers, and others participated in a national labor strike. The CDM holds a central role in the resistance today. This form of protest against the junta has made a substantial impact on the junta’s attempt to run the country as if things were normal.
After eight months, the impact of both COVID-19 and the military coup began to add more suffering to people’s lives. The unemployment rate soared and banks were still short on cash. The Myanmar Kyat devalued remarkably and the economy continued to slow down. Fuel prices skyrocketed, interrupting the transport of domestic goods.
On top of this, the COVID-19 Delta variant began spreading through the country at the end of June 2021. The deadly combination of a viral pandemic and the terror-inducing coup, sometimes collectively referred to as ‘Coupvid’ in Myanmar, presented a huge challenge. The Myanmar people’s resilience has been sorely tested.
Resilience is contextual. Patrick Sakdapolrak and Markus Keck stated the definition of social resilience as “the abilities of social entities to tolerate, absorb, cope with and adjust to threats.”  Many forms of crisis are natural events such as cyclones and floods. However, social resilience is also important for manmade disasters such as civil war, authoritarian violence, economic sanctions, and oppressive policies.
In Myanmar’s case, resilience means facing the manmade disaster of the unnecessary, and a still unsuccessful military coup, alongside a pandemic that has now killed six million people across the planet, according to official estimates. The people’s suffering continues to intensify despite international and regional organisations’ calls for the cessation of violence and dialogue between parties. People must find ways to endure social upheavals with a broken health care system and a crashing economy.
This article describes the resilience the people of Myanmar have shown towards the combined political and epidemiological violence we have faced while challenging the junta under pandemic conditions. While research for this article is based on the author’s first-hand experiences, all sources and identifying details are anonymized owing to concerns for potential retribution for speaking out against the junta. Media sources are provided wherever possible to add transparency and support.
As protests continued throughout the country, the crackdown in the states and regions intensified in June and July. Due to the military’s escalation of killings and arrests against protesters, big cities became quiet, with only small groups of protesters deploying flash strikes. Daily COVID-19 testing and control measures barely functioned due to a shortage of medical staff. People did not know the daily number of COVID-19 positive patients, meaning clusters of infections spread out undetected. Health information on the junta-controlled media was perceived as fake and insufficient.
Towards the end of June 2021, the third wave of COVID-19 emerged in Kalay Town, close to the border with India in Sagaing Region. The junta’s health department did not institute travel restrictions or other COVID-19 control measures such as quarantines or testing. Soon after, people from nearby villages and cities were also quickly infected. Analysts assumed the infections were allowed to spread by the junta as they could not control the protests. No health officials warned about the coming of the COVID-19 third wave, but people’s previous experience with the virus alerted them and it was assumed these infections were from the Delta variant arriving from India.
In Yangon, the nation’s commercial capital, death tolls began escalating rapidly in July. Crematoriums and cemeteries filled with dead bodies. Sources based on Parahita charity groups and ambulance drivers, believed to be more reliable than the junta’s official numbers, estimated death tolls of 1,500 to 2,000 daily during the third wave’s high point in July. Still, even as the COVID-19 toll was plainly apparent, the junta’s media organs undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths to project the image of control over the pandemic. For instance, on July 28, the junta mouthpiece media reported 78 COVID-19 deaths in Yangon Region; more critical sources estimated the actual burial on that day alone was 1,404.
When people realized that there were no reliable health care services, family members focused on getting oxygen supplies in their homes. Friends of friends, family doctors, and medical staff undertaking CDM were approached personally for medical advice on the phone. Military hospitals, general hospitals, and the existing COVID-19 treatment centres were open, but they did not admit patients easily. Most patients were denied admission, raising suspicions that the junta was taking advantage of the situation.
The parallel National Unity Government (NUG), formed by the deposed representatives of parliament elected in the 2020 general election, introduced teleclinics in which people could talk to doctors and receive COVID-19 treatment advice. However, these interventions were not easily accessible for those who were already in emergency situations. For them, the only services available were a few underground clinics run by CDM doctors. Some doctors were entrapped by the junta and abducted for trying to treat patients. In small towns, there were General Practitioner doctors who treated patients with flu medicine. But in Yangon, public clinics under the junta did not accept COVID-19 patients.
Eventually, a doctor “on-call” system became established, available through word of mouth. Nurses snuck into patients’ homes on invitation and brought administered medicines. As there were no wholly accepted, proven, and effective treatment options for COVID-19, doctors had to use their expertise to treat patients, not at the hospital, but in people’s homes. After two weeks of serious death tolls, some possible treatment methods were understood. Demand for doctors’ home visits was high and kept secret because most doctors were doing CDM. Through networks of friends, people helped each other find medicine such as Remdisivir, Enoxaparin sodium, and other pharmacological treatments as there was a shortage of medicines. As a result, pharmaceuticals prices went up.
Only a few pharmacies opened and there were always long queues, as the coup leader ordered his troops to control oxygen factories and shut pharmaceutical warehouses, a callous attempt to promote the military’s administrative power at the grassroots level. Civil society and charity organizations were not allowed to help people.
By the middle of August 2021, the extensive spread of COVID-19 among Yangon residents could be observed by the self-imposed lockdowns in every street and in the amount of help sought on social media. Friends shared stories of how they contracted and recovered from COVID-19. People found ways to cope with the challenge, but they grieved to let go of their loved ones. Through social media and phone calls, friends shared the experience of living through the COVID-19 third wave and helped each other identify sources of medicine and medical staff contacts. People no longer queued for oxygen and instead opted to purchase oxygen concentrators which were operational 24/7. Organisations and generous individuals shared their oxygen concentrators with people in need.
The third week of August was thought to be the peak of the third wave in Myanmar. The UK ambassador to the United Nations estimated that half of the Myanmar population could be infected if proper measures were not taken in time. Dr Zaw Wai Soe, the former deputy chairman of the Yangon COVID-19 prevention, control, and treatment coordinating committee, said that there could be up to 400,000 lives lost if proper action was not taken. Young people came forward and assisted people with getting oxygen and buying medicine. In some cases, when the whole family contracted COVID-19, the family could not go out and get food. In this situation, neighbours or youths helped them buy food. As a means of asking for help, people put up white flags for food assistance and yellow flags for medical assistance. However, the junta’s armed forces tried to intimidate and prevent people from doing this.
The number of deaths is unknown, in part due to the junta’s effort to cover up the extent of peoples’ suffering. At one point, the junta health department argued that people who died in their homes may not have died from COVID-19. The junta’s official figures only counted COVID-19 deaths recorded at hospitals, even though most patients were not allowed to be admitted to these hospitals. In August, my hometown, a small village of less than a thousand people had 30 deaths in one month, none of which were recorded officially. In Yangon, people witnessed dead bodies taken away from their homes without ceremony. A few new crematoriums were built, but even so, family members had to wait about half a day or more to cremate the bodies. In some cases, dead bodies were just left at the crematorium sites.
After the third wave of COVID-19, people became convinced they should get vaccinated in order to prevent themselves from future infection. However, low levels of trust in the junta produced uncertainty about how, where, when, and for whom vaccines would be available. Many doubted the authenticity of the vaccines the junta provided and were further concerned about the political implications of being inoculated with Chinese-made vaccines, which were much more readily available than a limited number of AstraZeneca vaccines arranged for from India under the previous government, given the Chinese government’s tacit support for Myanmar’s juntas.
The coup has severely impacted the Myanmar economy. The main issue is that the junta lost the people’s trust on 1 February. A bank run, which started on the first day of the coup and continued for days, is an example. People lined up to withdraw their savings. This did not stop bank operations entirely, although withdrawals were heavily restricted. Instead, the businesses that needed regular cash flow paid a percentage of fees and soon after, a market for money withdrawal appeared. At one point, the fee for withdrawing money unofficially reached up to 15 percent.
As the country’s economy relies on imports, the depreciation of the Myanmar Kyat affects trade – especially at border towns. Myanmar’s economy has been immobilized since the first day of the coup, stalling growth. Because of the currency devaluation and foreign currency scarcity, the US Dollar Exchange rate went up to as high as 2,700 Kyat to a dollar, devastating businesses that rely on imported goods.
In order to balance inflation, the Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) sold a total of 144.8 million USD during the period from 1 February to 15 September. However, many business owners question the transparency of the foreign currency sale by the CBM as there was very little change in the inflation rate. They also assumed that CBM dollars were sold to close partners of the junta rather than into the wider economy of the country. These suspicions led to mistrust in the Myanmar Kyat and the general public began keeping dollars and gold instead of the local currency. Many believe that the kyat’s depreciation will harm their assets even if the country goes back to how it was before the coup.
These two factors: a sluggish economy and exchange rate volatility have caused stagnation and even negative growth. The World Bank estimated that the Myanmar economy’s growth rate will be -18.3% at the end of the year. After the coup, foreign aid was cut off, especially funding for development projects. Due to human rights issues, major companies such as Telenor, Woodside, Myanmar Metals, Suzuki Motor, H&M, and British American Tobacco with investments in Myanmar announced their exits from the country. Although the junta rushed to approve pending investment applications, there is no immediate capital inflow. On the other hand, pleas were made by human rights groups and the NUG to the Chevron USA oil company and the Total French offshore oil company to stop paying tax and profits to their business partner, the military junta.
People have put up with the excruciating economic situation, with the banking crisis and joblessness, for over a long year. Economic growth had been consistent and was accelerating again following earlier waves of COVID-19. The coup put a stop to these optimistic markers. People would still like to think that they will again have the same economic growth rate, but the recovery will take an unknown number of years.
Many people participate in CDM by boycotting government services by, for example, refusing to pay their electricity bills. During the second wave of COVID-19 under the previous elected civilian government, electricity bills were subsidized. Now that electricity bills have gone up from approximately 160,000 Myanmar Kyat (USD 80) per month to 450,000 Myanmar kyats (250 USD) on average per household, people simply cannot pay. The junta, with its armed soldiers, is forcing electricity engineers to pressure residents to pay. If they do not pay, the power line to their house is cut.
The majority of people in Yangon have a strong determination that economic problems will only be solved if the authoritative regime is permanently removed, and their elected government is restored. Many are willing to give their own lives if necessary for justice, freedom, and democracy if not for themselves now; but for the next generation.
Overcoming the dual ‘CoupVID’ crisis demands unity, consideration, courage, kindness, and mutual-support and above all, hope from the people of Myanmar. If our freedom to live, seek treatment for disease, and support one another were not limited by the military, the third wave of COVID-19 would not have been as damaging as it ultimately was under the junta.
If the junta continues to decimate the economy and threaten people’s freedom to distribute humanitarian aid, community resilience will be further compromised. Many people in Myanmar believe that the extent of suffering we have experienced due to COVID-19 is less a result of the virus than it is the result of the man-made disaster of the junta’s power grab in the middle of the global pandemic. Myanmar’s coupmaker, the head of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, weaponized the pandemic to further his own personal power. As this article was written, atrocities and afflictions continue in Sagaing Region, Chin and Kayah states, and elsewhere throughout the country. The NUG government declared a nationwide state of emergency and a defensive people’s war on September 7. The resistance continues to intensify, as the people of Myanmar work to turn our collective resilience into the freedom, power, and peace we so fully deserve.
Ngwe Min Tar Yar (pseudonym) is a Master’s student at a university in Yangon and he writes about social development and resources management issues.