Since the coup, hundreds of medical personnel and health care workers have been dismissed and subject to violent attacks. Many have escaped to areas under the control of anti-junta forces, leading to a severe “brain drain” or rather “brain hemorrhage” in the health system, Thin Zaw notes. When the third wave of the coronavirus struck Myanmar in July 2021, it hit like a tsunami. Immunization plans were severely interrupted, no quarantine or contact tracing measures were taken, and with shortages of health workers, medicine, and equipment, the health system was soon overwhelmed, with thousands of infections and rising deaths.
“To fight a pandemic, collective action is needed. Instead, Myanmar has faced a collective trauma,” says Thin Zaw. “The coup destroyed the reciprocal trust both horizontally among people and vertically between people and the government.”
Challenges for Humanitarian Response
Myanmar needs humanitarian assistance in every area, but grueling challenges hamper humanitarian relief delivery. International aid groups grapple with shuttered access, high-cost and high-risk operations, and ethical and political dilemmas: Should they stay or exit? Through which channels should they deliver aid? How can they advocate and work with the military junta? How should their money be spent under the military regime?
Dr. Tun, providing a grassroots medical humanitarian perspective on what is happening in Myanmar, described the multiple problems facing providers and patients on the ground. These include a severe shortage of health workers on the frontline, difficulties getting patients to hospitals, lack of essential medical supplies and equipment, COVID-19 infections, and overall increased mortality and morbidity among IDPs. He presented the results of a mixed-methods survey of health care workers conducted in non-military-controlled areas and conveyed their urgent requests for help.
A Way Forward
With Myanmar’s health system in collapse, this is a time to focus on strengthening primary health care and leveraging the silver lining of the post-coup softening of ethnic tensions to build a federal health education system for inclusiveness, said Thin Zaw. She pointed to the collaboration between the NUG and EAOs-controlled healthcare groups as an encouraging step towards creating a federal health system.
She urged international actors to be realistic about the limits of their influence over the military junta and to create flexible and politically sensitive aid programs with contingency plans. Yet international organizations must continue all efforts to support the delivery of critical services to the people of Myanmar, especially in areas such as food security, emergency health, and COVID-19 response, she said. “Please don’t forget the people of my country,” she pleaded.