© Reuters. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients receive treatment at hospital in Cikha, Myanmar on May 28, 2021. REUTERS / Stringer
(Reuters) – Breathless, feverish and without extra oxygen that could help keep them alive, new coronavirus patients at hospital near Myanmar-India border underline threat of a system health system close to collapse since the February coup.
To help her treat the seven COVID-19 patients at Cikha hospital day and night, head nurse Lun Za En has a lab technician and a pharmacy assistant.
Mostly, they offer kind words and paracetamol.
“We don’t have enough oxygen, enough medical supplies, enough electricity, enough doctors or enough ambulances,” Lun Za En, 45, told Reuters from the city of a little further. of 10,000 inhabitants. “We operate with three employees instead of 11.”
Myanmar’s anti-COVID campaign sank along with the rest of the healthcare system after the military seized power on February 1 and toppled elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government had stepped up testing, quarantine and treatments.
Services in public hospitals collapsed after scores of doctors and nurses joined strikes in a civil disobedience movement at the forefront of opposition to military rule – and sometimes at the front lines of protests that were suppressed in the blood.
Thirteen doctors have been killed, according to data from the World Health Organization which shows 179 attacks on health workers, facilities and transport – nearly half of all these attacks recorded worldwide this year, said WHO Representative in Myanmar, Stephan Paul Jost.
Some 150 health workers were arrested. Hundreds of additional doctors and nurses are wanted for incitement to hatred.
Neither a junta spokesman nor the health ministry responded to requests for comment. The junta, which initially made combating the pandemic one of its priorities, has repeatedly urged doctors to return to work. Few of them responded.
TEST CARRIED OUT
A worker at a COVID-19 quarantine center in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon said all specialist health workers have joined the civil disobedience movement.
“Again, we are no longer receiving new patients because the COVID testing centers do not have staff to test,” said the worker, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisal.
In the week before the coup, nationwide average COVID-19 tests were over 17,000 per day. That figure had fallen below 1,200 a day in seven days until Wednesday.
Myanmar has reported more than 3,200 COVID-19 deaths out of more than 140,000 cases, although the decline in testing has raised doubts over data showing that new cases and deaths have largely leveled off since the coup.
Today, a health system in crisis is raising concerns about the likely impact on the country of the wave of infections with variants sweeping through India, Thailand and other neighbors.
Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 started appearing at Cikha hospital in mid-May. It is just 6 km (four miles) from India and health workers fear the disease is the highly contagious strain B.1.617.2 – although they do not have the means to test for it.
“It is of great concern that testing, treatment and vaccinations for COVID-19 are extremely limited in Myanmar as more lives are at risk with the spread of new, more dangerous variants,” said Luis Sfeir-Younis, director of COVID-19 operations in Myanmar for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Twenty-four cases have been identified in Cikha, Lun Za En said. Seven were so severe they needed hospitalization – a sign of the few cases that had likely been detected.
Stay-at-home orders have now been declared in parts of Chin State, where Cikha is located, and in the neighboring Sagaing region.
The WHO said it was trying to reach out to authorities and other groups in the region who could provide help, while acknowledging the difficulties of a health system that was hastily reversing years of impressive progress.
“It is not clear how this will be resolved, unless there is a resolution at the political level to resolve the political conflict,” Jost said.
Lun Za En said her hospital was doing its best with nebulizers – machines that turn liquid into mist – to relieve shortness of breath. Some patients have oxygen concentrators, but they only work the two hours a day that the city is supplied with electricity.
Refusing to abandon the sick, Lun Za En said she decided not to join the strikes.
“The junta will not take care of our patients,” she said.
Across Myanmar, some striking doctors have set up underground clinics to help patients. When Myanmar Red Cross volunteers established three clinics in Yangon neighborhoods, they quickly took in dozens of patients.
At best, these options can provide basic care.
“Eighty percent of hospitals are public health hospitals,” said Marjan Besuijen, head of mission for the Medicins Sans Frontières (MSF) aid group. “As MSF or others, we cannot intervene, it is too big.”
Although military hospitals have been open to the public, many fear them or refuse to leave on principle – including for coronavirus vaccinations in a campaign the ousted government launched days before the coup.
“I am very concerned that these new infections are spreading across the country,” said Lun Za En. “If the infection spreads in crowded cities, it could be out of control.”