This is a short blog post, since I will have more later in the week on how the newest wave of COVID-19 is shattering Southeast Asian public health systems, causing massive decimation, and upending politics from Indonesia to Malaysia to Thailand. The region had, in 2020, been cited as a major success story in the battle against the pandemic. Vietnam alone had been one of the most impressive public health stories, and even poorer countries in the region like Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar had relatively few COVID-19 cases in 2020. That has now all changed. Indonesia and Malaysia have become two of the centers of the current COVID-19 wave, most of the countries in the region save Singapore have vaccinated few of their people, and even the biggest former success stories, like Thailand and Vietnam, are now suffering massive spikes in caseloads.
Perhaps no place in Southeast Asia, though, is suffering more than Myanmar. Indonesia and Malaysia have been hit exceptionally hard, but in Myanmar the newest wave of the pandemic has spread through the country even as, after the February 1 coup, the country’s entire public health system and social welfare system has utterly collapsed. Longtime Myanmar expert Mary Callahan, of the University of Washington, has released a thorough and despairing piece on the enormous toll of the pandemic in Myanmar. It is worth a read in full here.
As Callahan notes, the combination of the civil disobedience movement, the military’s seizure of medical facilities and equipment, the overall state of unrest in Myanmar, the collapse of the economy, and the isolation of the country has led to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world. In some ways, the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Myanmar has been overshadowed by the political aspects of the coup, the civil disobedience movement and spiraling violence, and the attempts by foreign countries to respond (or not) to the political implications of the military’s seizure of power. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar recently noted, a “perfect storm” of factors, including the coup, the collapse of the health system in Myanmar, migration, and the new variants, is causing a massive emergency in the country; according to some reporting, 26 percent of people being tested for COVID-19 in Myanmar (and few people are actually getting tested) are testing positive.
The humanitarian situation needs to be urgently prioritized by foreign states, with a massive and creative response, even if the political situation in Myanmar remains unmovable for now.