By early March, the grim reality of the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov2 was beginning to settle in on countries around the world. COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in places far from the virus’ origin in Wuhan, China, including South Korea, Italy, and the United States.
March was a major global turning point in the pandemic. On March 1st, SARS-Cov2 was already present in almost 60 countries. In the first week of March, the number of those infected with the disease worldwide rose by the thousands each day. Governments and private entities took drastic measures to slow transmission. And the biophysical, socio-economic, and political impacts of the disease seemed to leave no corner of the world unscathed. When Myanmar announced its first case on March 23rd, it became the 157th country to confirm the presence of the virus within its borders.
Reports of the first coronavirus cases seemed unexpectedly late in Myanmar, given the country’s proximity to the initial outbreak and extensive travel between Myanmar and China. Journalists and infectious disease experts speculated that the sustained absence of confirmed cases in Myanmar was due to limited testing and a lack of reporting by people that may be infected, given that many symptoms of the virus are similar to other common illnesses.
While it may be months before the full extent of the virus’ impact on Myanmar becomes clear, the weeks leading up to the first detection would have been a critical time to take preventative action and prepare for potential pressures on healthcare, food security, and public safety. However, the government’s lack of consistent communication about Myanmar’s vulnerability to the virus, absence of urgency in facilitating people to take preventative measures, and the dissemination of false information about the virus’ behavior may have compromised opportunities to better prepare the nation for the impacts that the virus brings.
In this essay, we trace the Myanmar government’s response to COVID-19 throughout March 2020. Our purpose is to take an analytical look at the progression of the Myanmar government’s response to the pandemic and highlight considerations for government action in the coming months. While some preventative measures were announced early in March, the severity of the threat SARS-Cov2 poses to Myanmar seemed to fluctuate in state discourse, first through hopeful declarations that the virus would not impact Myanmar the way it has other countries and subsequently through tropes of magical thinking. After the first cases were detected, the presence of the disease has been reported through xenophobic projections, which may have additional consequences for protecting and providing for some of the most vulnerable populations in the country.
While there remain valid questions about the nature of SARS-Cov2, U Zaw Htay’s claims contradicted well-documented existing knowledge about the novel coronavirus’ behavior, such as its highly contagious nature and long incubation period. Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s statements, calling them “irresponsible,” “defy[ing] reality,” and saying that they give a “false sense of security to the country’s people about the disease and their risks of infection.”
While the Myanmar government should be acknowledged for shutting down the nation’s largest national celebration even in advance of detecting the virus in the country, the advance measures taken were seriously compromised by inconsistent messaging about the public’s vulnerability to infection. It is understandable that governments will try to calm their populations amidst the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. But notions of national exceptionalism only served to discourage people from committing to behaviors that could limit the spread of the disease, like finding ways to practice social distancing where possible. And misinformation at the highest levels of government will only further erode trust between people and the government once it becomes clear that the virus does not respect national borders, as it has in Myanmar in the weeks since March 23rd.
In the absence of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar and only minimal government-imposed measures to prevent the disease, many of Myanmar’s public turned to the prominent voices of the sangha.
As early as the beginning of February, claims of magical means of protection began circulating on the internet and in public. The New York Times reported that a prominent monk recommended eating one lime and seven palm seeds to effectively prevent the disease. Another advised taking a dose of seven ground peppercorns. This information, and other religiously framed insights from Buddhist leaders, spread quickly via sermons shared on loudspeakers, televisions, and Facebook.
However, at a critical point in the global onset of COVID-19, the narrative of Burmese exceptionalism was quickly becoming coupled with Buddhist exceptionalism – the idea that the coronavirus is less likely to take root in Myanmar because of its Buddhist population and sacred landscapes.
This perception seems to have informed denials of the threat that the novel coronavirus may pose to Myanmar at every level of society. One anonymous Facebook user shared the aforementioned Human Rights Watch report with the dismissal that “we are a country of devout Buddhists and this fact will protect us from epidemics.” Dr. Win Thandar Phyu, the chief of North Okkalapa General Hospital in Yangon, mirrored this sentiment, saying “Myanmar is still lucky because it’s a Buddhist country and senior monks are always praying to be safe.”
Worship, meditation, and faith in any belief can offer solace and help people find strength in moments of turmoil. Religious figures can be powerful allies in educating the public about the risk of disease. For example, Buddhist monks in Shan State became involved in educating people about disease spread and proper methods of disease prevention in January. The Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha meditation center had stopped admitting new foreigners and locals for meditation within its compound, implementing self-quarantine measures through March. After the virus was eventually detected in the country, Al-Haj U Tin Maung Than, Secretary-General of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council of Myanmar and All Myanmar Islamic Religious Organisation offered Islamic schools and places of worship across the country for use as makeshift quarantine facilities.
Religious faith and scientific understanding need not come into conflict and can even reinforce one another to meet public health needs. However, the replacement or contradiction of scientific understandings about disease transmission and treatment with religiously informed solutions can lead followers away from taking effective, precautionary measures. Given the particular urgency of SARS-Cov2, faith-based dismissals of the virus’ mode of transmission and infection within a population can produce a dangerous dichotomy between religion and science.
As information about religious remedies and assertions that Myanmar and its citizens are protected from COVID-19 spread through the populace, the virus could have been doing very the same.
As March progressed, recommendations from the World Health Organization to take necessary precautions were only minimally adhered to. Crowds in Yangon, Myanmar’s most densely populated city, continued to gather in tea shops, markets, monasteries, and pagodas. Without proper physical distancing measures in place, monasteries and pagodas could be particularly risky places for disease transmission, especially as people seek solace at holy sites in times of uncertainty.
Around the world, limitations on testing have disguised the true number of how many people might be infected with the novel coronavirus SARS-Cov2. It is not unreasonable to expect that Myanmar would face difficulties in conducting truly representative coronavirus testing within its borders, given the limitations the healthcare system already faces. The bigger issue, from our perspective, is that the belated discovery of coronavirus in Myanmar fed overconfident declarations of practical immunity from the virus. Such misinformation was perpetrated by people within positions of power and authority, both giving the population a false sense of security and wasting time that could have been used to better prepare the nation for the infections that have been inevitably discovered in the weeks since March 23rd.
Myanmar’s urban poor and rural populations will be the most vulnerable to the impacts, both physiological and economic, of the coronavirus pandemic. Preparation for vulnerable communities with limited health care resources, requires planning ahead before cases are detected to limit or prevent spread into communities. Advance preparations for the virus can also help communities socially and psychologically prepare for the changes they will face.
Preparation for the pandemic might very well look different in Myanmar than it does in the rest of the world. An insistence on total social distancing has been criticized in Myanmar and around the world for disregarding the economic livelihoods of people who rely on daily income. But even minor preparations are important to make in this health crisis: preparing to have smaller Thingyan celebrations and not visiting family for the holidays can make an important difference in slowing the spread of the virus. Conversations about necessary changes to daily routines and long-term preparations are made more difficult when people receive inconsistent and inaccurate information from those they trust in government.
Further, an inadequate response to the virus risks exacerbating the social fallouts that follow in the wake of the pandemic. Narratives describing national or religious exceptionalism and COVID-19 as a foreign disease fuel nativist politics that may engender further social disruptions that build on biases created long before the virus arrived. This will leave socially marginalized groups, like non-taingyintha and ethnic minorities living in the borders, at higher risk for exposure or limited access to resources and treatment. It is also worth considering how imagining the coronavirus as a foreign contagion could further imperil groups who are already vulnerable to conflict. While global calls for ceasefires amidst the pandemic have been welcomed by some Ethnic Armed Organizations in Myanmar like the Karen National Union, the Myanmar Tatmadaw has continued launching offensives. And despite warnings that the coronavirus will likely harm those in internally displaced person camps most, blockages of foreign aid limit the capacity of humanitarian organizations to provide healthcare services in these areas.
Addressing this pandemic will require close cooperation and transparency between civilians and the government. If communities are to implement social distancing measures where possible as well as maintain access to adequate food and health care resources, more information should be provided about the possibility of the virus to be spread by individuals aside from those that have recently tested positive or associated with vectors external to the country. While trust, cooperation, and transparency between citizens and the government have long been in short supply in Myanmar, it is now more than ever critically important to begin to build it.
Nicole Tu-Maung is a science lecturer at a liberal arts institution in Yangon, Myanmar. She has also worked in environmental consulting in Myanmar. She holds an M.S. in Environment and Resources from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Matthew Venker is a Ph.D Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on legal practice and citizenship in Yangon. He also freelances in photography and writing in Myanmar and the United States.