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  • Writer's pictureMyat Tun Oo

How Aung San Suu Kyi is handling the Coronavirus crisis?


Myanmar democratic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised by Human Rights activists and the west for handling of Bengali crisis(Rohingya crisis). She has defended her country against the Genocide accusation at ICJ recently. Although she has been criticised by some western countries for their own convenience, most western governments agreed that there is very little she can do because the army who has been alleged for war crimes is not under her government according to the current constitution.

Now COVID 19 had started in the next door neighbour China in January 2020 and Myanmar is very close to the epicentre of Coronavirus outbreak. Myanmar health system is ranked at 190 by WHO in 2000 while UK is ranked at 18, US is ranked at 37 and neighbouring countries like Laos is ranked at 165, Singapore at 6, Philippine at 60, Malaysia is ranked at 49, Thailand is at 47 and Indonesia is at 92, India at 112, Bangladesh at 88 and China at 144 before the outbreak. In addition, Myanmar healthcare expenditure per capita is less than the neighbouring countries. For example, Singapore spends US$ 2618.71 per capita, Thailand spends US$ 247.04, Indonesia spends , even Timorese government spends US$ 83.20. If you compare to the best prepared countries for epidemic like US which spends US$ 10246.41 and UK’s spending of US$ 3848.67 per capita, Myanmar healthcare spending per capita of US$ 58.04 is a drop in the ocean and you can safely say that Myanmar is heading for disaster if Coronavirus hits the country.

In most countries, from Italy to UK, they needed their army to help with the crisis from carrying the corpses to the transport of PPE equipment and taking swabs. In Myanmar, army will only help with the order from the National Security Council and Suu Kyi government refused to convene since it took power in 2016. The main reason is not to approve the extension of the army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who had extended his retirement age who is also blocking the constitutional reforms and the other reason is that National Security Council is his only way to stage coup legally according to the Myanmar’s constitution and they want to deny him staging any coup legally.

First of all, Suu Kyi formed a committee and immediately stop the direct flight from Wuhan. In addition, her government managed to repatriate those who are trapped in foreign countries by arranging chartered flights. This was when UK and US governments are struggling to repatriate its citizens back. Furthermore, she has decided to quarantine all who came back from abroad including migrant workers nearly a total of 100,000 people. Burma is a very poor country and you might wonder how they are going to do it and feed them. It will be crazy without calling the army for help. Suu Kyi rise up to the occasion and her chief ministers as well. Suu Kyi came to Facebook where most of her fellow countrymen use it on 1st of April. She immediately draws two million strong followers. She engaged with people by posting and also doing video conferencing with frontline staffs including medics, local admin officers and volunteer groups and even chief ministers. So People came to her rescue as volunteers and ran the quarantine camps. People provide food and also monks let the government use their monasteries as quarantine centres, so she managed to avoid asking any help from the army.

People helped in tracing any contact person and containing them. Then, Burma needed to do modified form of lockdown during the peak period. She tried to avoid ended up like the lockdown in India. So she came up with the strategy to distribute rice and essential items to the poor people and unemployed. She also gave 150 units of electricity free of charge during the lockdown period in the mid of April. As a result, Myanmar managed to do semi lockdown without any local protest or dissent and without the help of the army for law enforcement. People donated money in return for their electricity fee.

The only thing lacking in her strategy is to do the mass test. But Myanmar is not South Korea, UK, US or Singapore and technology and funding are very limited. So Myanmar has to rely on WHO and other donor countries for reagent for the test. Again, local AA pharmaceutical company donated COBAS 6800 and Myanmar has managed to increase the capacity to test the antigen. In addition, Myanmar has converted officer training school to the infectious disease hospital within 30 days and this was led by her Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and helped by local donors and volunteers. This is equivalent to the National Centre for Infectious Disease in Singapore, Nightingale hospital in UK and Javits Centre in New York. The only difference is that Myanmar has very limited budget and build by the donations from its citizens. This is to accommodate more patients if needed. At the moment, Myanmar is hospitalising all COVID positive patients unlike US and UK where they admit for severe cases.

As a result, Myanmar has so far 161 confirmed cases with six dead so far and most of those who passed away had pre-existing condition like cancer and other illness. The mortality stands at 3.72%. It may seem nothing in itself if you compare to Singapore but a lot better than Indonesia, US, Italy, France and UK. If you consider Burma’s complicated constitution where the president can’t order the military like the way where President Donald Trump ordered the army to move USNS Comfort to help in New York and if you consider healthcare spending per capita compare to other countries, what Myanmar achieved is a miracle in itself.

In addition, Myanmar has prepared and ready to accept second wave of upto 150000 migrant workers who will come back neighbouring countries. They will be put into the facility quarantine for 21 days and they will be provided with food and shelters and volunteers are ready for it. Obviously, Myanmar can’t afford to pay and rely on volunteers to help and run those facility quarantine centre and administered by the government officials. By doing so, the government managed to avoid asking any help from the army. Why you get so many volunteers? This is partly because of the culture and also Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is very popular inside the country and she called for help and everyone chips in. In addition, she is lucky enough to have the health minister U Myint Htwe who worked in WHO before and also another minister for relief and social welfare Professor Win Myat Aye who helped in distributing food and her Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein who led the most populous city well during this crisis.

Moreover, she came up with the clever idea for face mask as well. She knows that it will be very difficult for her government to provide face mask for the whole country. She made a face mask and showed it on the Facebook how to do it. This face mask is reusable and compliance with WHO advice. By doing so, she avoided a single use face mask which can be environmentally damaging and also reduce the cost of her government and give her people something to do during the lockdown and save lives. This is a real genius stroke.

How about economy?

She managed to avoid the total lockdown like India, Italy, Spain and UK. Her government came up with ‘COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan’ which will pump billions into the economy and financial help for some struggling industries. Coronavirus may be blessing in disguise for Burma because the country’s garment industry is prone to the economic sanctions from EU due to Rohingya crisis. Now, this industry has to go with or without EU’s threat and the economy has to rely on the agriculture and other sectors.

In conclusion, Burma has definitely managed to contain the first wave and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government managed the crisis very well compared to the resources she gets and in spite of ongoing civil war inside the country. She makes people actively engaged in this fight against coronavirus and moved them from side-lines in the past to actively being part of the process.

You may praise how South Korea’s strategy worked well and how Germans did the test. But Myanmar has no resources or technology to do the same thing like in South Korea or in Germany. However, Myanmar has a transformational leader called Aung San Suu Kyi who can match those leaders in South Korea and Germany. She has mobilised her country to face this pandemic and she did really well. In other words, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has risen up to the occasion. Myanmar people love her, and she loves her country. Myanmar is blessed to have her during this crisis. We know too well the cost of a bad leader because thousands of people died during the Nargis cyclone crisis in May 2008 when we were under the dictator General Than Shwe. She should be given full credit for handling this crisis well. We are blessed to have her in Myanmar (Burma) during this crisis.

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