Insein Township, a northern suburb of Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, has always been famous for the wrong reasons. It hosts the country’s largest prison, a red-brick colonial edifice where several of Myanmar’s most famous political prisoners wrote harrowing memoirs of their time behind bars. In January 1949, a year after independence from the British, it was a battle ground. Soldiers from the Karen ethnic group, seeking autonomy from the Bamar majority, tried to seize the city, then called Rangoon. They were repelled after a fierce battle at Insein.
More recently, the township, which has a population of around 300,000, became the epicentre of Myanmar’s COVID-19 epidemic. This was thanks to a cluster of infections linked to sermons in early April 2020 led by a Christian pastor, David Lah, who was visiting from Canada. This cluster from Myanmar’s only ‘super-spreader’ events included one of the country’s biggest rock stars, Myo Gyi of the band Iron Cross, as well as David Lah himself, who had told congregants that faith in Christianity would protect them from the virus. It took until 1 July for the government to lift stay-at-home orders that were imposed on Insein in mid-April.
And as the visit to the busy tea shop in Insein showed, strict physical distancing has not quite taken hold in Myanmar. It is also impractical in a country where most people live in close quarters with their extended families.
On visiting Insein more than two months after Myanmar announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on 23 March 2020, it looked little different to any other neighbourhood in the city of more than five million people. In the intense sunshine and heat that precedes the annual rainy season, people gathered around pavement stalls selling mohinga, a ubiquitous meal of noodles in pungent fish broth. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their mandatory face masks lowered to their chins, chatting loudly over the revving and honking of buses taking commuters on the traffic-choked journey to central Yangon.
It was not quite the pandemonium of rush-hour Yangon before the pandemic, but it wasn’t far from it. While much of the world was locked down for months, Yangon only truly shut down for ten days over the traditional new-year festival of Thingyan in mid-April, when businesses normally shutter anyway for the biggest holiday of the year. This year, people had to observe the festival in silence in their homes, instead of dousing their neighbours with water to the sound of deafening pop music on the streets.
On that hot afternoon in late May, the Khayay San tea shop on Insein’s main road was humming with business. The reopening of tea shops earlier that month did more than anything else to signal a return to normalcy in Yangon. Sprawling onto busy streets, they are neighbourhood hubs where people meet friends, exchange news, do business, eat oily snacks and drink saccharine milk tea. The only visible concessions to physical distancing at Khayay San were transparent screens framed with blue PVC piping that separated customers sitting at opposite sides of each table. On closer inspection, something else stood out: Most of the customers were young, neatly dressed men of working age who would normally be occupying offices on a Friday.
Six young men were sitting around one table, each barely a foot apart, playing games on their mobile phones. They said they had been friends since primary school, but they had gone on to occupy very different places in society. Three were marketing staff at a toiletries company, one a computer technician, one a taxi driver and one a construction worker.
They said they were idling at the tea shop because their work was still on hold. Yet, they didn’t seem too troubled about this. “It feels like a long holiday period,” said 23-year-old Zway Yan, the computer technician, who had been furloughed since Thingyan. “I don’t worry too much because [the pandemic] will finish at some point.”
A collective sigh of relief
For people in countries around the world that are suffering crippling health crises, Zway Yan’s nonchalance may be hard to understand. However, across the city, there is a shared sense that the threat of COVID-19 has come and gone while barely leaving a footprint.
The national tally of 337 confirmed infections as of 16 July is miniscule compared to the rest of the world. Although testing for the virus is paltry, with only 97,651 tests performed in a country of 54 million (as of 16 July), Myanmar’s threadbare hospitals, which suffered decades of neglect under military rule, have not reported a general rise in patient numbers, and there is no evidence of a rise in unexplained deaths.
This is despite Myanmar sharing an approximately 2200 kilometre long border with China, and before the pandemic receiving a steady stream of Chinese immigrant workers linked to Chinese-backed investment projects. Chinese tourist arrivals were also ballooning, and the overall number of Chinese visitors reached 749,719 in 2019. Some of these tourists and business travellers availed themselves of direct flights from Wuhan, where the virus first emerged. The flights continued for weeks into China’s epidemic, at the height of Myanmar’s tourist season.
For most citizens who have lost their income, the only assistance they have received from the government is a donation over the Thingyan holiday of a parcel containing rice, salt, cooking oil, lentils and onions.
Moreover, while other countries like Vietnam moved early to contain the virus with strict, targeted measures, regional authorities waited till the Thingyan holiday began on 10 April before issuing stay-at-home orders in Yangon, with a patchwork of restrictions applied elsewhere in the country. It also allowed tens of thousands of internal migrants to leave Yangon, which had already recorded over 20 infections, and travel to their home towns and villages across Myanmar in the days leading up to the holiday. In addition, the mass return in late March of tens of thousands of laid-off migrant workers in Thailand, which had recorded a considerably higher number of cases, became a fiasco as migrants were largely unable or unwilling to comply with orders to quarantine at home. This prompted Minister of Health and Sports Myint Htwe to warn of a massive outbreak.
And as the visit to the busy tea shop in Insein showed, strict physical distancing has not quite taken hold in Myanmar. It is also impractical in a country where most people live in close quarters with their extended families. A ban on international arrivals at airports since 30 March has probably helped in preventing an outbreak, as has the mandatory three-week quarantine at a government facility or hotel for citizens arriving via special repatriation flights and through land borders. But both were imposed after the virus had already been detected in the country.
On 4 April, soon after the health minister’s warning, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said that the next two or three weeks would demonstrate how quickly COVID-19 would spread. When April passed without the explosion of confirmed infections seen in so many other countries in the world, there was – sensibly or not – a collective sigh of relief. In the months since, fear of the virus has dissipated and people have returned to their normal routines.
How has Myanmar been largely spared from the pandemic despite taking relatively light and belated measures to contain it?
Theories being exchanged in reopened bars and tea shops include a belief, in the absence of scientific evidence, that the virus fails to transmit effectively in the country’s humid climate, as well as a more elaborate theory. Some speculate that Myanmar achieved herd immunity in an undetected spread of COVID-19 that showed up as a spike in a flu-like illness in January and February 2020 in Yangon and other parts of Myanmar, such as Shan State in the northeast, bordering China. But reports of this spike are anecdotal – and in the absence of widespread testing and research into the behaviour of the virus, the true picture of COVID-19’s progress in Myanmar is anyone’s guess.
“I can’t stay at home”
While the lack of an observable health emergency is a comfort to many in Myanmar, for people who are closer to the poverty line than computer technicians and marketing professionals, the last few months have been a battle for survival, with no end in sight. The limited restrictions that were imposed, coupled with a fall in demand for Myanmar’s export goods, has devastated livelihoods. For most citizens who have lost their income, the only assistance they have received from the government is a donation over the Thingyan holiday of a parcel containing rice, salt, cooking oil, lentils and onions. One-off direct cash transfers to poor households, discussed for months, are only just getting underway.
Lwin Maung, a 44-year-old trishaw driver who peddles people to and from Insein’s Phawkan Market, said he kept working despite the government’s stay-at-home orders: “I have to support my wife and my daughter, who is going to attend high school when it reopens [Myanmar is expected to begin a phased reopening of schools on 21 July, starting with the top two grades]. I’m the only source of income in the family, so I can’t stay at home.”
At the entrance to the market, a 50-year-old flower seller named Shwe Yi became conscious about being photographed because she was not wearing a face mask. Since 13 May, Yangon Region authorities made wearing masks compulsory on pain of a MMK 5000 (USD 3.50) fine. Hurriedly putting a disposable mask over her mouth and nose, she said that despite a drop in sales since before the pandemic and her fear of catching the virus in the crowded marketplace, she had no choice but to continue working as usual.
“If I don’t come and sell flowers, another flower seller will come and take my spot and my customers,” Shwe Yi said. “That’s why I’m still here every day.”
The economic damage has been particularly stark in Myanmar’s fledgling industrial zones. Media quoted the deputy minister of labour on June 26 as saying that 5658 factories had closed, making over 140,000 people jobless. Many of these were garment factories in the industrial fringes of Yangon.
The garment sector is one of Myanmar’s economic success stories, and has been at the forefront of the country’s gradual emergence from international isolation since the military junta handed power to a semi-civilian government in 2011. The sector netted USD 4.6 billion during the last fiscal year and has overtaken oil and gas as the country’s biggest export earner. Ninety percent of its workforce of more than half a million are women. Although the sector is based overwhelmingly in Yangon, many workers come from impoverished parts of the country, such as Rakhine State.
Garment factories felt the pain early on, when a shortage of raw materials from China in February prompted some factories to close, reduce hours or lay off workers. But just as China’s industry started to reboot and supply lines were restored, factories faced a mass cancellation of orders from Europe, the pandemic’s new epicentre, where most Myanmar-made garments are sold to clothing giants like H&M and Inditex.
Tens of thousands of lay-offs followed, some owners absconded without paying wages, and attempts by unions to protect workers’ rights amid the upheaval faced harsh crackdowns. Some striking union members have been given summary prison sentences for violating COVID-19 prevention measures, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people.
In late March, the government extended deadlines for tax payments and granted tax exemptions for garment and tourism businesses, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. It also launched a MMK 100 billion (USD 72 million) loan fund from which businesses in these sectors could receive loans carrying one percent interest for a period of one year. While Myanmar has taken on new emergency debt from bilateral and multilateral lenders – including USD 700 million from the International Monetary Fund, approved by parliament on 26 May – the government’s plans for further economic stimulus are vague.
Soe Myint, chair of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, thinks the measures the government has taken so far are not enough to save the garment sector. He said the disbursal of loans from the new fund had been slow; extra effort was required to ensure “money goes to the neediest smoothly and effectively”. He said the process was complicated by the fact that most factory owners are foreign, in particular Chinese.
“The government also needs to do more to help workers recover,” Soe Myint said, referring to the mass layoffs. He said emergency support for workers should come from the Social Security Fund. Although the fund is intended for workers’ welfare, its greatest use in the crisis so far has been to finance half of the MMK 100 billion loan facility aimed at companies.
“I can’t pay my rent”
The stakes could not be higher for garment workers. Despite recurrent workplace disputes and the harassment of union leaders, the industry is full of young women whose lives, and those of their families, have been transformed by the opportunity to work a steady job with guaranteed income and protections that are denied to the more than 80 percent of the Myanmar workforce that is in the informal sector.
One such woman is Zar Zar Tun, aged 33, who moved with her husband, younger sister and parents a decade ago from the poor village of Hpat Ye in Hinthada Township, in the Ayeyarwady delta west of Yangon. The family, which now includes Zar Zar Tun’s two-year-old daughter, live in a two-storey wooden home in Dagon Seikkan Township, an industrial suburb in eastern Yangon.
The family finances were thrown into a tailspin when Zar Zar Tun was arrested along with fellow union members on May 4 for participating in a strike at her workplace, the Blue Diamond bag factory in Dagon Seikkan. The workers objected to a demand from the factory management that they sign a pledge to stop protesting as a precondition for keeping their jobs. This demand, issued on 2 May, was made in retaliation to a series of protests by workers in April in support of temporary factory closures with full pay, in order to protect workers from COVID-19. Zar Zar Tun was sentenced within 24 hours of her arrest, along with five of her colleagues, to three months in prison for violating the government ban on gatherings and for “wrongful restraint” in blocking the entrance to the factory.
Some striking union members have been given summary prison sentences for violating COVID-19 prevention measures, including a ban on gatherings of more than four people.
Zar Zar Tun’s husband, Aung Zaw Oo, has also seen work as a casual construction worker dry up amid the economic downturn. “I can earn 14,000 kyats for a full day’s work. But for every day without work, I get nothing,” he said.
This has left Zar Zar Tun’s younger sister as the sole earner in the household. She retains a job at a factory, but her monthly salary of MMK 130,000 has been cut by almost half, to MMK 70,000. According to Aung Zaw Oo, factory workers were now too scared to protest for fear of being imprisoned like Zar Zar Tun. Aung Zaw Oo said he did not know how the family would keep paying the monthly rent of MMK 120,000 for the house.
Not all workers can depend on family. One of Zar Zar Tun’s colleagues and fellow protestors at the Blue Diamond bag factory, Kay Thi, avoided arrest and imprisonment, but the pregnant 30-year-old lost her job for taking part in the strike. She had eloped to the city five years ago from Kawa Township in Bago Region, just north of Yangon, but has been unable to contact her husband since he left for a construction job outside the city several months ago.
“I have no family to rely on, and I can’t pay my rent for this month because I haven’t received my salary for April or any compensation for being fired,” Kay Thi said. “I’ve apologised to my landlord, but I don’t know what I can do.”
“We can all be justifiably happy”
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose leadership of the COVID-19 response has been largely unchallenged by the politically entrenched military, wrote on her Facebook account on 2 July of the “praise heaped on us” for Myanmar’s good health during the pandemic.
“In the beginning, there were some who did not think that our country would be able to handle such a huge problem,” she wrote, in what appeared to be a dig at international organisations like Human Rights Watch that characterised the government as being in denial of a looming health crisis that never came, and media outlets like The Guardian or Asia Times that amplified this concern. “This is the time when we can all be justifiably happy with elation.”
While wealthy countries elsewhere buckle under the pandemic, confirmed cases in Myanmar remain in the low hundreds – so the government is patting itself on the back. Many citizens share in this pride, conscious of how their country is often characterised as backwards and prone to disaster.
But though Myanmar has seemingly escaped a health crisis, it has not eluded an economic one, whose human toll in a country without a working social-safety net renders debates about ‘lives’ versus ‘the economy’ redundant. The predicament of factory worker Kay Thi – jobless and with little hope of government support – is being replicated across the country.
Without bolder measures to protect jobs and industries, the economic fallout of the pandemic threatens to undo the gains of Myanmar’s decade-long climb out of isolation. But these gains have not been shared equally, as the varied impact of the crisis makes clear.
On her 2 July Facebook post, Aung San Suu Kyi repeated a motto used previously to characterise the government’s COVID-19 response: “leave no one behind”. This ought to guide not only health and economic policy during the pandemic, but also a long-term reorientation of the government and economy towards levelling inequality and protecting the vulnerable. Such a shift could take years of determined effort, and will have to contend with powerful vested interests. But Myanmar cannot afford to wait until the next crisis comes.
An earlier version of this article was published in Norwegian in Transit Magasin, a Norway-based global-affairs magazine (https://www.transitmag.no/)
Ben Dunant has been working as a journalist and researcher in Myanmar since 2014. He is Managing Editor at Yangon-based magazine Frontier Myanmar. Kyaw Lin Htoon is a journalist at Frontier Myanmar magazine in Yangon. He previously worked at Myanmar Now, Mawkun and Myanmar Business Today.