Battle for oxygen as coup-hit Myanmar faces its most severe Covid outbreak
Khin Nwe Soe* went in a taxi, from factory to factory across Myanmar’s main city of Yangon, desperately searching for oxygen tanks for her 21-year-old son. A home test had shown he had Covid-19. He was in pain, able only to lie down, and his oxygen levels had dropped as low as 90%.
“She tried very hard, queuing at every place she could find, because her child needed it,” said Aye Myat Noe*, her daughter, who lives abroad but had called oxygen suppliers to help her mother. “She has a lot of health issues too, including diabetes and heart problems. She is very scared herself … She was seriously risking her life to find oxygen.”
Some plants had promised supplies on the phone, but turned her mother away when she arrived in person. Others said they could not allow any more people to join their queues. As many as 80 people were waiting anxiously in line.
Queues have formed at oxygen plants across Yangon over the past week, as Covid-19 has spread rapidly across the country. Residents risk arrest lining up after dark, a breach of curfew rules in some areas. Social media is flooded with pleas for help. Some are edited, to say it is now too late.
“My oxygen levels have dropped to 55 (% concentration). I need more oxygen again. Some elderly at my house also need it… we can come collect ourselves. Please help us,” a student wrote on Facebook. The same request was repeated 11 times, until he passed away on Sunday.
The outbreak, the country’s most severe yet, could not have come at a worse time. The military coup in February has caused Myanmar’s hospitals to collapse and thrown its vaccination and testing campaigns into chaos. On Tuesday, 4,047 cases were confirmed by the military-controlled ministry of health and sports, bringing the total caseload to 201,274 infections. In total, 5,014 deaths have been officially recorded. A lack of testing means this is likely to be an underestimate. Almost 90% of the country’s townships have reported cases, according to the Irrawaddy news site.
Joy Singhal, head of Myanmar Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said demand for oxygen and health services was soaring as cases surged across the country. “With more infectious variants of the virus now in circulation, we fear the increase of case numbers may be the tip of a coronavirus iceberg,” he said. “There is limited access to stretched hospitals and healthcare across much of the country.”
‘There was no one to do tests’
Aye Myat Noe’s family had tried to get treatment at a hospital, but found it impossible to get an official test or referral. They were told to first go to a state-run clinic for a test. “There were none in our township. There was no one to do tests for those who were feeling ill at these clinics,” she said.
Isolation centres have been set up, with bamboo mats lined up inside tents, for those with mild symptoms. People face a difficult decision: stay in a facility that is overseen by the military, which has killed 902 people since seizing power and is accused of widespread human rights abuses, or stay home, and risk infecting relatives. Since the coup, many public-sector workers who have protested against the junta have been evicted from government housing, and are now living in even more crowded conditions.
Khin Nwe Soe’s family, unable to be admitted, used cabinets to divide their hall apartment. She slept near to the entrance, where the ventilation is best.
Eventually, she was able to buy an oxygen tank for 400,000 kyat ($243) – the only option available, and a sum unaffordable to many. As she carried it up to their apartment, the neighbours downstairs heard that she had managed to find an oxygen tank, now the most sought after item in Yangon. Their mother had also tested positive, they said, and was in a critical condition.
“Her children came rushing to our door and banging on it. They knelt on the floor and were begging my mom to please save their mother,” said Aye Myat Noe. “They begged my mom to give away the tank she found. The tank that she risked her own life to bring home.”
Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing said on television that it was true the country was “a little short of oxygen supplies”, but blamed people for panic buying tanks. He accused “people with malicious intentions towards our country’s politics” of spreading fake rumours that the military was cutting off oxygen supplies to the people.
Military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun previously said that restrictions had been put in place for private-owned oxygen plants, to prioritise supplying hospitals over individuals.
On Monday, security forces opened fire to disperse a line of people queuing to buy oxygen in Yangon, according to reports by local media.
The vast majority of patients, including people with severe disease, are staying home. They are either self-treating, or relying on care from local doctors operating in secret.
Many government health workers protested against the military takeover by refusing to work in state hospitals, and are now working covertly because they are being pursued by security forces. At least 157 medics have been arrested since the coup, while hundreds more are wanted. Health facilities have repeatedly been raided, ambulances fired at and medics attacked by junta forces.
Government medics who visit patients not only face the threat of arrest and violence by the military, but also the risk of becoming infected. Under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, Myanmar was one of the first countries in south-east Asia to roll out vaccinations. This has ground to a halt, partly because there is deep distrust of the military. Less than 4% of the population has received one vaccine dose.
Sandra Mon, a senior epidemiology researcher at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health in Baltimore, said the outbreak was not only a crisis for Myanmar, but also a huge global health security concern. “A patchwork mechanism of vaccine delivery is crucial at this point,” she said, adding that healthcare workers and elderly should be prioritised for jabs. Such a programme could deliver mixed doses from alternative vaccine manufacturers, given the severity of the situation, she said. “It’s not just up for speculation. We are seeing a huge rise in cases, and it’s only rising by the day.”
Aye Myat Noe’s family donated their oxygen supply to their neighbour’s mother. She lived an hour-and-a-half hour longer using the tank. Her own brother is still ill, lying on his stomach to ease his breathing. He is often dazed, she said. Her father, who was also infected, is able to move around, but still coughs and sweats a lot. Her mother, Khin Nwe Soe, fainted because of the ordeal. “All the stress from living with two Covid patients have multiplied on her,” said Aye Myat Noe.
“My parents have lived an extremely difficult life,” she said, adding that they had been able to live a little more comfortably since she started working abroad. “I really, really fear that they will die before they can enjoy life a little bit.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identity