Commentary: Myanmar’s COVID-19 cruise-ship moment as thousands of migrant workers flock back home

STOCKHOLM: As Thailand shut down its border last month, a wave of migrant workers jostled shoulder-to-shoulder back through the Myawaddy crossing to Myanmar.

Some 45,498 Myawaddy migrant workers have reportedly been placed in quarantine – a total of 50,731 people were in isolation as of this week.

But the effectiveness of the measures has been questioned. Concern grows that this may be Myanmar’s cruise-ship moment, but it is only one of a growing number.

READ: Migrant workers left out in Thailand’s fight against COVID-19

READ: Commentary: Has Myanmar been in denial over COVID-19 outbreak all this while?

According to figures last week, the country had 62 confirmed COVID-19 patients and four deaths, the results compiled from more than 2,100 tests. Recent cases suggest that some undetected community spread may also be occurring.

The donation last week of a testing machine increases Myanmar’s testing capacity from 80 per day to 1,400 – reliant still on obtaining enough reagents to conduct the tests.

Doubt remains around these case counts and the real number of current cases won’t be known for at least two weeks.

READ: Singapore sends COVID-19 diagnostic tests, machines to Myanmar

The Ministry of Health and Sport’s capacity for a pandemic has significantly improved in recent years. Myanmar was ranked seven (out of 11) Southeast Asian states in a recent pandemic preparedness index.

In 2017, Naypyidaw invited the World Health Organization to conduct a joint external evaluation, a voluntary multi-sectoral process assessing public health emergency preparedness.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the WHO in Geneva

A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) ahead of a meeting of the Emergency Committee on the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Geneva, Switzerland, January 30, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

Much of the capacity built since is around readiness to tackle seasonal vector borne disease outbreaks, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. This knowledge and architecture for communicable disease response will be useful during the current response.


Despite these improvements, Myanmar has the odds stacked against it in this pandemic.

The presence of several risk factors for severe disease or death from COVID-19 are not encouraging.

There is already a high prevalence of cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, and diabetes. Preliminary research suggests these are associated with more severe forms of COVID-19.

The high rate of current smokers in the country – 43.8 per cent among men aged 25-64 years old – is also cause for concern with similar associations with more severe forms of the disease indicated.

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High rates of poverty and vulnerability are also concerning. Inequality is rife, not the least for the hundreds of thousands of precariously placed internally displaced persons and the 58 per cent of the population living below or near the poverty line.

Even before health system weakness or other factors are considered, these alone could make the case fatality rate higher in Myanmar. But one saving grace may be that Myanmar’s average age is 28 – older age is a strong risk factor for severe disease.

Other worries abound. The health system remains weak and ill-prepared for this crisis.

Bed capacity is limited. There are an estimated 600 critical care beds and 330 ICU beds (1.1 per 100,000 people) – the real operational number may be less.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 will deepen global inequality

A woman's temperature is taken as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus

A woman’s temperature is taken as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus before entering a shopping mall in Yangon on Mar 25, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu)

Other indicators may weaken an efficient response. Out of pocket expenditure on healthcare remains high at 76 per cent of payments made at point of care, the highest in the region.

This high cost may mean people don’t seek healthcare and remain infectious in the community for longer, or wait too late to seek care and have more severe disease.

These are but a few examples, but weakness in the health system will be exacerbated during the crisis.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 – maybe countries will get serious about strengthening social safety nets now

The timing of the disease could also multiply its impact. The disease outbreak came just ahead of the Thingyan New Year celebration which runs through much of April. This is a period of increased mobility when people travel back to family and friends gather.

Attempts have been made to curb such movements. Whether they are effective won’t be known until the end of the month.

Following these celebrations is monsoon season, when flooding and disasters are common, and vector borne diseases, such as dengue, increase.

READ: Silent streets for water festival in Myanmar lockdown


Complicating Naypyidaw’s response is that health governance is fractured in contested areas, with several ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) running their own health services. These are supported by external actors, such as in Wa state, by Chinese state and non-state actors.

They differ greatly in their capacity but are often poorly equipped. The immediate impact aside, this crisis may see them further decentralised through the support of external aid – the geopolitical implications of which would be significant.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Myanmar President Win Myint and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Myanmar President Win Myint and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi attend a cermony marking Myanmar and China’s 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations at in Naypyidaw

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The reality is that areas controlled by EAOs will struggle to respond to the disease. Many of these communities and other vulnerable areas across the country could be hardest hit – particularly where healthcare is provided by humanitarian actors now running reduced programmes.


Acknowledging the ongoing debate in the country, there is a chance Myanmar may avoid the experience of Wuhan, Italy, or the United States.

READ: Commentary: How Wuhan mobilised to survive an over-70 day COVID-19 lockdown – and bounced back

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Thus far, reported case numbers remain comparatively low across Southeast Asia. This may be for one or several reasons including poor testing regimes or lower COVID-19 transmissibility in tropical climates.

Indeed, the response needs to fit the context. An extended European-style lockdown could be more damaging for the country than a more tailored response.

In the short term, however, particularly given the movement normally seen during this month’s New Year celebrations, measures that apply an abundance of caution are warranted and may mean a much shorter period of lockdown.

Even if that most fortunate of cases is true, it may only be short-lived. The country needs to continue to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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Myanmar is a crucial battleground for the global COVID-19 fight. Nestled between India, China and Bangladesh, or half the world’s population, and with porous borders, its ability to control an outbreak could have wider regional ramifications.

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Elliot Brennan is an independent researcher and a former research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy’s Asia Program (Sweden). This commentary first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.

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