The number of people infected with coronavirus continues to climb and the body count from the deadly virus rises day by day across the globe. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Myanmar had reached 14 as of March 30, with the Myanmar government stepping up its preventive measures as the disease also known as COVID-19 shows little sign of abating in the near term.
Myanmar is vulnerable to rapid spread of a highly contagious disease like COVID-19, and the country’s healthcare system is not ready to handle a large influx of infected patients. If the tally of coronavirus cases begins to show exponential growth — as it has in other countries — and the hospitals are overwhelmed, the risk of consequent social problems will rise commensurately.
The Ministry of Health and Sports regularly releases information on preventive measures for the public to take in order to mitigate coronavirus contagion. Among the guidelines, people are urged to wash hands frequently, cover one’s face while coughing or sneezing, and avoid crowded areas. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi personally delivered some of these instructions in a televised address that was also made available on the radio and internet.
During that speech on March 24, she said, “I would like to make a plea to the public on behalf of our government: ‘Don’t get into a panic about it, and follow the directives and announcements of the Ministry of Health and Sports and other government agencies regarding COVID-19 calmly and without any unease.”
Sadly, her message could not reach more than 1 million people from townships in Arakan and Chin states where mobile internet access has been cut off. The speech would have had particular relevance for internally displaced people (IDPs) who are living in crowded camps across several of the affected townships.
But in June of last year, the Myanmar government began denying internet access to eight Arakan State townships: Buthidaung, Maungdaw, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, Mrauk-U, Minbya and Myebon. Paletwa Township in neighbouring Chin State was also deprived. The ban was lifted in some of the townships on September 1, only to be reimposed on February 3.
IDPs who fled their homes due to conflict could carry very few of their belongings, if any, so the camps are devoid of TVs and radios. Newspapers do not reach the vast majority of these camps’ inhabitants either.
Under these circumstances, the deprivation of the internet as a means of receiving information is especially problematic among IDPs, at a time when timely communication of coronavirus preventive measures could literally be life-saving.
What they can get is rumours and worrying messages while they are also trying to overcome their daily living challenges. When DMG phoned a handful of IDPs to ask them about COVID-19, they said they had merely heard about the virus, but did not have a good understanding of it. They don’t know what they should do to mitigate the risk of the deadly pandemic potentially ravaging their camps.
Attempts to overcome the communication challenges facing IDPs through in-person visits to the camps by Health Department staff would only partly address the problem. Such a plan would be difficult to implement because the lives of public health officials would be endangered if they were to travel to IDP camps in remote areas and villages, some of which are considered active conflict zones.
Furthermore, while the government is urging people to wash their hands to prevent coronavirus contagion, some IDP camps do not have sufficient water for drinking and cooking. Practicing vigorous hand-washing regimens in these camps would further strain already scarce water resources. In the past, camp needs might be met by IDPs uploading requests for relief aid to social media, but in the nine townships denied internet access, that is no longer a possibility.
Many people from Arakan State work abroad due to a lack of job opportunities in the state. This poses an additional problem this time of year, as Arakanese migrant workers return home for the Thingyan holiday, potentially bringing back with them the coronavirus. (Official statistics indicate that COVID-19 has thus far impacted neighbouring countries to a greater extent.) Just one infected returnee could trigger a regional COVID-19 outbreak.
For all of these reasons, the case for restoring internet access to the nine affected townships of Arakan and Chin states has never been stronger. Knowledge is power, and in this case it is possibly life-saving, as Myanmar braces for a growing coronavirus caseload and effective communication of preventive measures becomes increasingly important.
DMG urges the government to immediately lift the internet ban and to reduce restrictions on media, especially so that local news outlets based in Arakan State can freely distribute news in line with media ethics.