11 Minutes To Read

Wavering at the Turning Point: Myanmar’s response to COVID-19 in March 2020

11 Minutes To Read

Nicole Tu-Maung and Matthew Venker trace state narratives about COVID-19 in Myanmar at a critical point in the onset of the pandemic.

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.

Burmese Exceptionalism

When news of the coronavirus first began making international news in January, many in Myanmar seemed to take the threat seriously given the country’s close proximity to China and the lack of material preparation in Myanmar’s healthcare system. But as more time passed without detection, ideas about how Myanmar may be uniquely immune to the virus began forming. Some of this discourse of exceptionalism was a matter of ordinary misinformation: speculations that the spice and turmeric common in Burmese food promotes immunity to viral disease; social media posts speculating that SARS-Cov2 can’t live in such hot weather; internet graphics that incorrectly inform viewers that as long as they drink something very hot as soon as their throat begins hurting they cannot get the virus.[1] The rapid spread of such misinformation makes it difficult for consumers of online media to sort fact from fiction. However, Burma is hardly alone in dealing with such issues. More problematic is that ideas about exceptional protection from the disease were reiterated by top officials and heads of medicine, fortifying the idea that Myanmar and its people are somehow more insulated from the biological threat than other countries. In late January, the chief minister of Tanintharyi shared a post suggesting that consuming onions would keep Myanmar citizens safe. In early March, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health reassured citizens in a press release stating, “Hubei province is 1,200 miles away from our country…This geographical factor is preventing the disease from spreading to us.” Following March 11th, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the Myanmar government began taking steps to curtail the spread of the virus. On March 13th, the President’s Office announced a ban on public gatherings until the end of April, a suspension which would extend to public celebrations of Thingyan, Burmese New Year, which were set to take place throughout the week beginning April 10th. Movie theatresdaycares, and nurseries were closed for at least six weeks beginning on March 16th. These decisions indicated that the government would be taking some actions to keep the virus at bay, despite the absence of confirmed cases up until that point. Yet, these early efforts were undermined by a number of misleading declarations from state officials and medical professionals that Burma is uniquely protected from the threat of the virus owing to a variety of social and geographic circumstances, a trend we identify as Burmese exceptionalism. Alarmingly, even in mid-March several prominent members of the government were still using ideas of national exceptionalism to downplay the threat of the virus, perhaps distracting from the urgent need to prepare for its impacts. In a televised address on March 16th, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi stated that “no one in our country is infected with COVID-19.” While the absence of the disease within Myanmar’s borders until that point would be an ideal reality, the State Counsellor’s statement should have been qualified by the limits to detection. Of Myanmar’s population of over 53 million people, only 133 individuals in Yangon and Mandalay who showed symptoms so far had received testing, an insignificant sample size for such a significant conclusion to be drawn. To the State Counsellor’s credit, Aung San Suu Kyi herself warned against complacency, noting that the lack of detection doesn’t necessarily signify the absence of the virus in the same speech. However, members of her government and other prominent voices in health care took the negative results of PCR testing as an indication of something special about Burma. Among the most notable was the spokesperson for the State Counsellor’s Office, U Zaw Htay, who formed a widely shared theory on the exceptional protections afforded by the lifestyle of Myanmar people:

The lifestyle and diet of Myanmar citizens are beneficial against the coronavirus… Myanmar does not share the customs of greeting with handshakes, hugs or kisses that [some] countries have. It also does not have a high number of credit card users compared to other nations, as the person handling credit cards at the counter would be in close contact with hundred[s] of different people in a day. This is avoided by Myanmar’s predominant use of paper currency.

U Zaw Htay

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.

Magical Thinking

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.

Constructing a Foreign Disease

On March 23rd, the first two positive cases of coronavirus in Myanmar were Myanmar citizens recently returned from abroad, arriving from the US and UK. Since the detection of coronavirus in the country, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) has published limited details of each new confirmed case, including age, gender, nationality, where the individual is hospitalized, and travel history. Each subsequent positive case that was detected was reported by foregrounding the relationship of the patient to some source of the virus external to Myanmar. The state’s discourse was to suggest that the virus was new to Myanmar as of March 23rd. This disclosure of travel history may be reinforcing a problematic global trend regarding narratives about the novel coronavirus: that the SARS-Cov2 virus is a foreign disease. Indeed, the MOHS announcement was met with internet vitriol aimed at people who had the privilege of global travel. As Frontier Myanmar[2] reported, some nationalists began framing the detection of coronavirus as a new external threat, with one prominent Facebook user writing “[y]ou stayed in another country happy to the full extent and come back now to your motherland only when you are infected… I won’t forgive you in this life and even the next.” Through the end of March, all new discoveries of SARS-Cov2 in Myanmar have been connected to international travel: six Myanmar citizens coming from abroad; five foreigners arriving from countries with high caseloads; one Myanmar tour guide who led three of the foreign tourists on their trip, and one more Myanmar person who contracted the virus from this tour guide. These detections reflect the fact that the Myanmar government is focusing its efforts on stemming the arrival of the virus from abroad rather than fully preparing for the likelihood that it has already long taken root in the country. Ostensibly, the merit of publishing the travel history of coronavirus patients is that it facilitates contact tracing. Given Myanmar’s already overextended healthcare system, it might be cheapest and easiest to focus detection efforts on international ports-of-entry and the foreign guests who come through them. However, without further efforts to determine where the virus might already be rooted in Myanmar, the overt effort to root out which foreigners and their contacts have the novel coronavirus may also promote the misconception that the threat remains external to Myanmar. Moreover, people lacking Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which prove legal citizenship in Myanmar but are not easily available, may refuse to seek medical care due to concerns about the treatment they will receive. As the experience of other countries shows, the coronavirus pandemic is not only a biological event; it is also social and political. In the United States, racialized and nativist discourses about COVID-19’s spread from China have led to a swift rise in hate crimes against people of Asian descent. Further, fears among undocumented populations in the US that reporting to hospitals may result in deportation discourages people from seeking medical care, creating the possibility of further spreading undetected cases. Despite the differences between these two countries, both of these negative outcomes remain grim possibilities in Myanmar. The idea that the coronavirus is a threat from abroad may reinforce historical frameworks positioning foreigners – and Myanmar citizens of foreign descent – as a threat to the rights and resources of taingyintha.[3] By imbuing serious public health concerns with misleading information about where the present source of threat of the coronavirus comes from, this type of rhetoric legitimates xenophobic fears that those perceived to be foreign are more likely to be vectors.

Moving Forward from the Turning Point

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.

Notes

[1] These examples are drawn from personal conversations and observations of widely shared posts on Facebook. We are not providing links to these examples to keep the identities of those who shared these posts private.
[2] Frontier Myanmar Daily Briefing, March 23rd, 2020.
[3] Taingyintha, often (inconsistently) translated as ‘indigenous,’ ‘native,’ or ‘national/national races,’ separates a perceived original pre-colonial population of ethnic groups from the descendants of ‘foreign’ ethnic groups that arrived in Myanmar during colonial rule. ‘Taingyintha’ has emerged as the dominant political concept conferring political privilege in Myanmar both because Myanmar’s Citizenship Law links citizenship status to descent from Taingyintha and because of a historical legacy of racialized politics that emerged during the era of military rule.
For more, see: Cheesman, Nick. How in Myanmar “National Races” Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya.” Journal of Contemporary Asia ,Volume 47, 2017 and Nyi Nyi Kyaw, “Alienation, Discrimination, and Securitization: Legal Personhood and Cultural Personhood of Muslims in Myanmar.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs ,Volume 13, 2015.
For more on how notions of Taingyintha in Myanmar compare to global notions of indigeneity, see Dunford, Michael. “Indigeneity, ethnopolitics, and taingyinthar: Myanmar and the global Indigenous Peoples’ movement.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Volume 50Issue 1 February 2019 , pp. 51-67. 2019.