The sickest COVID-19 patients in Myanmar are now being denied admittance to military junta-run public hospitals, family members and relief workers said Thursday, as the country’s healthcare system has been pushed to the brink of collapse during a poorly managed third wave of the coronavirus.
The number of COVID-19 infections rose Thursday to a total of 284,099 since Myanmar’s first recorded case in March last year. The official monthly infection rate has jumped from around two percent of those tested in April 2020 during the first wave to 23 percent earlier this month, and at least 8,210 have died.
The country’s public hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and had been turning away all but the most seriously ill, while others were forced to settle for treatment at home amid shortages of basic medical necessities, including oxygen supplies critical to mitigating hypoxia.
But sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service that as of Thursday, even the worst afflicted patients are being rejected from hospitals—including those operated by the military regime—that had pledged to accept people infected with COVID-19, often with deadly consequences.
Charity groups said that when patients are sent to hospitals, they will not be accepted without a referral letter from the township health officer. But even with a referral letter, they said, patients are generally refused admittance because of high body temperature. Other hospitals reject patients on the grounds that there are not enough doctors or beds.
Myint Aung, 66, of Yangon’s South Dagon township, died at his home on July 9 after being refused a bed at an area hospital earlier that day, according to a family member who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.
“A chest x-ray was taken on arrival, and nothing was found in his lungs, so he was sent home as just a ‘suspected patient,’” the family member said.
“He was told to go to Yangon General Hospital or to North Okkalapa Hospital, but we knew they wouldn’t accept him either, so we took him back home. If they had taken him into the ICU at the time, he might still be alive.”
The circumstances surrounding Myint Aung’s death are becoming increasingly common. A video recently went viral on social media in which a crying young man claims that his sister exhibited severe COVID-19 symptoms and was rushed to a public hospital but was denied treatment and died.
The alternative for COVID-19 patients is to go to a private hospital, but the cost of treatment is exorbitant, and the quality of care is questionable, sources said.
“To get into a private hospital, you need to make a deposit of 100,000 kyats (U.S. $61), but even then, there is no guarantee you will get enough oxygen,” said Ma Khine Za from Yangon’s Shwepyithar township, adding that few people can afford the cost because many have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
If you can afford the deposit, “you still have to bring your own oxygen cylinder, and it seems they have no guidelines for COVID-19 treatment,” she said.
Ma Ei, who works for a charity group, said that for COVID-19 patients in Yangon that require treatment at home, the cost of nursing had risen from 80,000-100,000 kyats (U.S. $49-61) in mid-July to 120,000 kyats (U.S. $73).
“Additionally, the patient’s family has to provide PPE (personal protective equipment) and other equipment, as well as a separate bedroom for them to live in,” she said.
Meanwhile, oxygen prices have doubled in the past week, and even the cost of traditional medicines is on the rise, sources said.
In Yangon, where COVID-19 infections are rising dramatically, aid workers told RFA that patients are dying every day without access to medical care and oxygen.
There are currently five charity groups in Myanmar’s largest city that are providing oxygen to the infected because clinics are refusing to treat patients with fever and hypoxia.
Among them, the Cetanar Shin Charity Association said that every day it treats 40-60 patients who need emergency oxygen because they were turned away from hospitals and clinics.
Wai Phyo Aung, Cetanar Shin’s chairman, said that “two or three patients die each day” while receiving emergency oxygen from his group because they did not have access to proper medical treatment earlier.
Min Din, chairman of the Yangon-based Metta Thingaha Free Funeral Association, which provides medical transportation and burial services for the less fortunate, told RFA that a growing number of COVID-19 patients are dying at home.
“We are now taking on funerals only, beginning on July 10. We couldn’t transport COVID-19 patients anymore because the hospitals aren’t accepting them,” he said.
“Recently, we’ve been picking up more bodies from people’s homes. Most of the corpses have oxygen canisters by their side [indicating that they were being treated for COVID-19].”
Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the country’s military seized power on Feb. 1, claiming that a landslide victory by the NLD in the country’s November 2020 ballot was the result of voter fraud.
The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and has violently responded to widespread protests, killing 936 people and arresting 5,425, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Tens of thousands of people, including many healthcare professionals, have left their jobs to join a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to junta rule. Many have faced arrest for voicing criticism of the regime.
More than 4,600 people have died from COVID-19 over the past two months, according to the junta’s Ministry of Health and Sports, although the actual number is believed to be substantially higher, based on reports by charity groups that provide free burial services.
Dr. Than Naing Soe, a spokesman for the junta’s Ministry of Health, said the country’s hospitals are overburdened due to a shortage of health workers.
“For various reasons, only about 50 percent of the staff are working in some cases. Those who are working are exhausted, but more and more people are being infected,” he said.
“For every 100 people infected, 20 need to be hospitalized and, of them, five need to go to intensive care.”
Than Naing Soe said he was saddened by reports that patients are being turned away from hospitals due to staffing issues. He also urged people to stay home to reduce the risk of infection.
But a doctor who declined to be named dismissed attempts by the military to appease the public, saying the situation would continue to worsen for as long as authorities continue to arrest people who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a walkout of medical and other professionals against military rule.
“Doctors and other health workers continue to be arrested and tortured during this third wave … So, naturally, the healthcare they are providing is going to get worse,” he said.
The doctor told RFA that the military has been too concerned with maintaining its grasp on power following the coup to effectively deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, he said, doctors in the CDM continue working to provide public health care, despite the risks they face.
Earlier this week, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, called on the U.N. Security Council and its members to pressure the junta to immediately end the arrests of health workers at a time when the country’s death toll is rising.
On Thursday, Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward warned that half of Myanmar’s 54 million people could be infected with COVID-19 in the next two weeks as Myanmar’s envoy called for U.N. monitors to ensure an effective delivery of vaccines.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.