© Reuters. A volunteer fills an oxygen tank as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases rise in Mandalay, Myanmar, on July 13, 2021. Photo taken on July 13, 2021. Phoe Thar via REUTERS
(Reuters) – For a week, Phoe Thar, a 21-year-old student, went out at dawn to collect oxygen cylinders from the homes of coronavirus patients in Myanmar’s second city of Mandalay.
He and his fellow volunteers line up tanks outside of charities to fill and return, trying to save lives in a country whose healthcare system has largely collapsed since the February 1 coup and is now facing its worst surge in COVID-19 infections.
Funded by donors on social media, Phoe Thar and her team are part of a growing grassroots effort that bypasses the authorities and echoes how the people of Myanmar responded to crises during previous decades of army government.
“Since the number of people who need oxygen tanks is huge, it is a great challenge for us,” Phoe Thar told Reuters by phone from Mandalay.
Figures from the Ministry of Health showed that COVID-19 deaths reached a record 233 in Myanmar on Saturday, but doctors and funeral services say the true figure is much higher and crematoria are overloaded.
The total official death toll has risen more than 40 percent already this month to 4,769 with the spread of the Delta variant that has also skyrocketed in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Reuters was unable to reach the health ministry or a board spokesperson for comment on the outbreak and the public response. A spokesman for the board said last week that there were difficulties in fighting the outbreak and urged people to cooperate with the government.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said Health Minister Thet Khaing Win held a meeting on Saturday “to accelerate momentum” in the fight against COVID-19, including through an increase in oxygen supply.
Critics of the board say lives have been lost due to restrictions it has placed on some private oxygen providers in the name of stopping hoarding.
A health system that was already among the weakest in the region after the coup, as many health workers joined a Civil Disobedience Movement to oppose the junta. COVID-19 vaccination, testing and prevention measures stalled.
‘HOSPITALS CAN’T DO ANYTHING’
A clandestine doctor who recently volunteered help on social media said he was inundated with hundreds of requests. When he made house calls, he found that almost all of the patients had coronavirus symptoms and most had low oxygen levels.
“The situation is dire,” said the doctor, who works under the name Pa Gyi. “Hospitals can’t do anything for them … I can’t just sit back and watch patients become helpless.”
He contrasted the situation with that of two previous waves of the coronavirus that were largely controlled by the government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now deposed and on trial on a series of charges.
The Suu Kyi government had the advantage of having volunteers manning the quarantine and testing centers and helping to take some of the burden in public hospitals.
But far fewer are coming forward to help a military government that still faces daily protests against its seizure of power after alleging fraud in a landslide victory in last year’s election.
Most of the volunteers in Mandalay from the first and second waves of coronavirus infections had disappeared, Phoe Thar said.
Instead, groups like yours are organizing themselves, resembling the way Myanmar people have often helped each other during disasters in the past, particularly after a limited response from a meeting prior to the devastating cyclone. Nargis in 2008.
Groups of friends in the main city, Yangon, told Reuters they were coming together to try to import oxygen cylinders from neighboring Thailand.
Residents of the city of Kawlin in the western Sagaing region are trying to raise at least $ 30,000 to import their own oxygen generator from China.
“We are now suffering from the third wave of COVID. We do not know how many more waves there will be,” one of the organizers told Reuters by phone, declining to be identified for fear of retaliation. “Now we have to act as if we have no government.”