As of July 8th, Myanmar has has a total of 316 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6 deaths. Their cases spiked in early April with a little over 100 cases appearing in a span of two weeks. But what accounts for the low case count? (If such a low case count can be trusted—many experts and observers questioned government narratives of a coronavirus-free Burma in March, and some have been skeptical of official statistics since then, suggesting they reflect limited testing capacity rather than absence of the virus.)
A key element of Myanmar’s response has been strict curfew and quarantine laws. Since March, over 500 people have been sentenced to between one month and a year in prison for violations of these laws, including children, returning migrant workers, and religious minorities. Authorities have charged hundreds for these violations, with some resulting in fines. However, imprisoning people for violating curfews, quarantine, and physical distancing have disproportionately affected certain communities and are seen as counterproductive in reducing threats to public health.
“Limiting public health risks through social distancing is crucial, but jailing people for being outside at night just adds to everybody’s risks,” Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia direction at Human Rights Watch, said. “Throwing hundreds behinds bars in crowded, unhygienic prisons defeats the purpose of containing the spread of Covid-19.”
In March, authorities announced several directives and restrictions which included a mandatory 28-day quarantine for foreign arrivals, nighttime curfews, bans of gatherings of over five people, and several township-level lockdowns.
Some citizens in villages say that they were unaware of the pandemic, as they were still affected by the internet shutdown that began a year ago due to fighting between the military and the Rakhine, an ethnic minority in the country. “With armed conflict between the Myanmar military and Arakan Army in Rakhine State amid a pandemic, it’s critical for civilians to get the information needed to stay safe,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch. Between the Scylla of armed conflict and Charybdis of coronavirus, women in Rakhine State have been particularly vulnerable.
The government had blocked many independent and ethnic news sites saying they were supplying “fake news.” However, concerns are being raised by independent rights watchdogs as these blockings prevent access to COVID-19 information, protocols on self-quarantine, and other practices to restrict the spread.
Authors: Camryn Thomas and Kevin W. Fogg