Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on authorities in Myanmar to take “urgent steps” to stop the spread of the new coronavirus among the country’s massive displaced population.
“Years of conflict, neglect, and abusive policies by Myanmar’s government and military have left hundreds of thousands of displaced people sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.
“The authorities need to ensure these groups have access to information, humanitarian aid, and health services, including prompt testing and isolation for those who show symptoms.”
HRW estimates that 350,000 people have been displaced by conflict and violence across Myanmar, with overcrowding, a mobile internet shutdown, blocks on humanitarian aid, raising the new coronavirus risk for vulnerable communities in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin, and Karen states.
The group notes that overcrowding at displacement camps “is pervasive”, making physical distancing — which is necessary to stop human-to-human transmission of the virus — nearly impossible.
HRW also said that Myanmar’s public health system is woefully ill-prepared to handle a pandemic, with a dearth of new coronavirus testing kits and a mere 6.1 doctors per 10,000 people, falling short of the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum.
The number of health-care workers per capita drops precipitously in rural and conflict-affected areas, with one Rakhine State township having only one doctor per 83,000 people.
“Health conditions are already disastrous for displaced people in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan camps, and now COVID-19 is threatening to decimate these vulnerable communities,” Adams said.
“Donors are ready to help, but nothing can happen unless the Myanmar government ends restrictions on movement and permits aid groups the kind of unfettered access needed for a rapid, substantive response to the virus,” he said.
HRW stressed that the country is obligated under international law to ensure equal access to health care regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, age, citizenship status, or gender.
“The government should ensure its response to COVID-19 includes targeted prevention and treatment efforts for displaced populations, including allocating additional space and resources to alleviate overcrowding and improve water, sanitation, and health services, in line with international guidelines on responding to the coronavirus in camp settings,” HRW said.
“The health ministry should consult experts and humanitarian agencies and make public its plan to reduce the risk of infection and protect internally displaced people and staff working in the camps.
“Any quarantine or isolation measures should be strictly necessary, proportionate, and limited in scope and duration.”
Myanmar reported its first new coronavirus death on March 31, and so far has officially registered 14 cases of the disease.
On March 29, the country’s Ministry of Health and sports warned the country was at risk of a “major outbreak” after tens of thousands of migrant workers returned home before the border with Thailand was closed.
According to Ministry of Health data, more than 23,000 people returned to Myanmar from Thailand via Myawaddy — a border town in Karen State — from March 19 to 28, the Irrawaddy reports.
Those returnees has since fanned out across the country, heightening the risks of an outbreak.