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For Myanmar's Refugees, Hunger is Bigger Concern Than COVID-19

Myanmar IDP Camps Brace for Coronavirus Outbreak
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Myanmar IDP Camps Brace for Coronavirus Outbreak

In Myanmar, an estimated 350,000 internally displaced persons living in crowded and sometimes unsanitary conditions face the danger of a widespread outbreak of COVID-19.

Access to food, aid and information has become increasingly difficult as travel restrictions and lockdowns increase.

In Kachin state, camps formed since 2011, when fighting resumed between the Myanmar forces and the Kachin Independence Army after a 17-year cease-fire was broken, are feeling the impact.

In the Myanmar government-controlled capital of Myitkyina, long-time residents who depend on casual labor earnings say they have more to worry about than the virus itself.

”We aren’t afraid to get the virus COVID-19 because the most important and dangerous thing for us is having the money needed for our family’s food supply,” says Naw Ja Pee, a Jaw Masat IDP camp resident.

“If we are shut out of food, we will all die,” she adds.

The camps surrounding the Kachin capital have been locked down since April 8.

Those who return to the camp from China and elsewhere are quarantined for 14 days and their vehicles are sprayed with disinfectants.

“The people who come back are classified as a risky group, so we have to find space to quarantine them and take care of them,” explains camp nurse Saw Kyi Na.

Food is in short supply and so is information about COVID-19.

To help understand the highly contagious virus, a local media group produced a video with a special message for IDPs.

Myitkyina News Journal’s Brang Mai and his team chose children from Jaw Masat IDP camp, with the intent of finding out their knowledge about the virus before producing an education video.

The final one-minute clip presents seven children from the camp reciting prevention guidelines including wearing a mask, covering a cough and washing hands often.

“The first benefit is we can check the IDP people. Do they have enough information on COVID-19 or not? And the second thing is, people will be more aware,” explains Brang Mai.

Social distancing, health care access

Social distancing is difficult in camps with wall to wall huts.

“The camps are really crowded, and all of their rooms are small and so in a small room there are eight to 10 people. They have to sleep in one small room together, so it is difficult for them to follow the social distancing,” Brang Mai adds.

Access to healthcare is also a big challenge and camp residents often struggle to get clean water and other essential services.

“Many people in Myanmar are completely outside the health system as it exists and that certainly includes the people in these IDP camps in Kachin state, which is why it is so critical why there should be an effective prevention,” said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson.

Humanitarian aid

Humanitarian aid to Kachin Independence Organization-controlled territory in Northern Myanmar has been blocked for the last four years but some aid is coming in, through China.

“I think that the U.N. team in Myanmar must get really forceful with the government of Myanmar and say ‘look this is life and death, it’s time to end these restrictions and let the people get the assistance in there that needs to be reaching these people,'” says Robertson.

Camp backstory

The IDP camps were formed when civilians fled fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups — a conflict that continues in Arakan, Shan and Karen states.

Quite often, the government soldiers control transportation routes and supplies to the camps.

The Myanmar government unveiled a stimulus package in March including a US$70 million loan fund, mainly for Myanmar businesses in government-controlled areas affected by the pandemic.

As the country braces for a possible outbreak of the deadly virus, civil society groups are calling for more aid for those in the ethnic areas since they are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.