Yanghee Lee: The junta is weaponising Covid-19

July 28th, 2021  •  Category News

Yanghee Lee speaks to The Telegraph

‘We can’t breathe… and the whole world is silent’: Myanmar begs for oxygen as Covid crisis worsens

Just like in India, Myanmar’s citizens take their desperate pleas for help to social media

Myanmar’s people were first deprived of their democratic rights, and are now being starved of oxygen itself, by a February coup that has plunged the Southeast Asian nation into a political and medical crisis.

As a deadly wave of Covid-19 fueled by the Delta variant sweeps a country where the healthcare system has virtually collapsed, people have flooded social media with pleas for oxygen supplies and coveted hospital beds as their loved ones suffocate at home.

“I can’t breathe,” said George Floyd and the whole world was shaken. “We can’t breathe,” said Myanmar’s people and the whole world still keeps silent!” read one dejected Facebook post this week.

Others showed graphic footage of people writhing and gasping their final breaths on the street, of overflowing makeshift morgues, or issued pleas for scarce oxygen cylinders to give their relatives a chance to survive.

The military coup that seized power from the democratically-elected civilian government six months ago has wrecked the economy and decimated the healthcare system. Doctors who opposed the regime are in hiding in fear for their lives, hospitals have been occupied by soldiers, vital medical supplies are gone.

“Can I buy an empty oxygen tank of any size? I need it urgently. Oxygen is running low for my grandmother,” said one of many similar social media posts on Thursday.

“My father is barely breathing. Where can I get oxygen? Please help, I have not received it yet. My father’s SpO2 level is only 70 now,” said another pleading Facebook post, referring to a dangerously low blood oxygen level.

Another shared a photo of a dead female relative, shrouded in red and white sheet on a metal gurney. “Four months pregnant and two human lives. I took a sad photo. It’s not the oxygen that killed her. It’s Min Aung Hlaing,” said the post, blaming the general who staged the takeover.

According to the local media, citizens are risking being shot by the military as they defy nighttime curfews to queue in line for precious oxygen supplies.

The New York Times reported that the military has ordered lifesaving oxygen be denied to private clinics staffed by doctors opposed to their rule, diverting tanks to their own facilities catering to soldiers and their families.

Reports this week have suggested soldiers arrested people carrying oxygen tanks and fired into a crowd of people queuing to buy supplies and that burial grounds in the capital, Yangon, are overflowing with hundreds of bodies, most of them of people who died at home alone as hypoxia starved their organs.

On Wednesday, state-run TV admitted to record numbers of 7,089 new coronavirus cases and 145 deaths.

But the country remains isolated from the world and the buckling of the healthcare system complicates the true reporting of cases and deaths. Meanwhile, social media has offered a window into apocalyptic scenes.

“Yesterday afternoon, a man in his 50s died in front of our house from Covid. He said he had a heart condition. When he got sick, he was diagnosed with Covid. He was not admitted to the clinic and returned home five minutes later,” revealed one post in Mandalay, the nation’s second largest city.

“The local funeral home was notified that there were no ambulances to carry the body. Cemeteries are full…As of this morning, the dead body was still at home.”

It added: “Will there be thousands of people still dying in their homes until we get herd immunity?”

Another heartrending post asked for help as a “whole family died from Covid and there is no family member left to take care of their funeral.”

But amid the horror, some are using social media to offer support and hope.

“If there is no one to help at home because the whole family has tested positive for Covid, tell me if you need medicine or food,” said one good Samaritan. “I will go shopping and will send it. No matter how far away it is by car, it is not far. Do not be discouraged at all. Think of it as a gift and let me help.”

On Friday, the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of independent experts, said the international community must urgently respond to the crippling Covid-19 crisis and get life-saving assistance across borders into the country through the democracy movement’s networks.

“The junta is weaponising Covid-19 for its own political gain by suffocating the democracy movement and seeking to gain the legitimacy and control it craves – and has so far been denied – by deliberately fuelling a humanitarian disaster and then co-opting the international response,” said Yanghee Lee, a former UN rights envoy.

“The generals are not partners for the delivery of aid. They are murderers who will be held to account for their crimes.”