Myanmar's Most Vulnerable PopulationsThe country of Myanmar is facing many difficulties regarding the spread and effects of COVID-19. With a tattered healthcare system, warring states, a fragile economy and thousands of people displaced, Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations are experiencing several risks. Displaced people living in detention camps, Rohingya Muslims and the poor disproportionately face the negative effects of COVID-19 in culmination with a declining economy.

Myanmar

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Myanmar’s health system as one of the worst in the world. According to official data, about 40% of Myanmar’s population live below or close to the poverty line.

There is a limited number of doctors, with 6.1 doctors per 10,000 people. Additionally, there are as few as one doctor per 83,000 people in conflict-affected areas according to Human Rights Watch.

Furthermore, there is little healthcare or medical facilities in rural areas, where most of Myanmar’s population lives. That makes it extremely difficult for people to seek medical assistance and testing for COVID-19, and estimate the number of coronavirus cases.

Ethnic Conflict

In addition to a poor healthcare system, Myanmar is also riddled with the conflict between the government and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs). Fighting in areas such as the Rakhine state and Chin state prevents any possible COVID-19 relief and government aid.

Additionally, the government has put mobile internet restrictions in place in response to the armed conflicts. Lack of accessible internet limits information about the virus along with access to medical services, preventing people from knowing the government’s response to COVID-19 and how they can protect themselves.

The Vulnerable

It is at a time like this that minorities and threatened groups are the most vulnerable. Many aid workers fear that on top of inadequate resources and poor living conditions, the virus could exacerbate hostile emotions towards minorities and targeted groups in Myanmar.

Groups such as displaced persons and the Rohingya Muslims face difficult obstacles in receiving medical treatment or preventative measures against the COVID-19 virus.

Displaced People

According to Human Rights Watch, there are about 350,000 displaced people in Myanmar, and 130,000 people living in detention camps in the Rakhine state. Military conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups mainly caused these people’s displacement. Living conditions are dismal in these camps, with little to no resources for treating or preventing COVID-19. There is limited access to clean water, toilets and medical services. Diseases are common and according to a Human Rights Report, “in such camps, one toilet is shared by as many as 40 people, [and] one water access point by as many as 600.”

The Rohingya Muslims

The Rohingya Muslims, a religious minority group, is one of Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations. They have been living in detention camps after experiencing persecution in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has restricted their freedom of movement, and the Rohingya Muslims live in squalid camp conditions. There are only two health centers available, both unequipped to test and treat COVID-19.

Living conditions are extremely cramped. According to a Forbes article, one of the refugee camps, Kutupalong, houses “almost 860,000 refugees. They are more densely populated than New York, with more than 100,000 people living in each square mile.” With people living in such close proximity to one another, the spread of COVID-19 through the Rohingya Muslims is inevitable.

Economic Effects on the Poor

COVID-19 also negatively impacts Myanmar’s economy. As a consequence, it has exacerbated poverty and lowered living conditions. According to the International Growth Centre and World Bank Open Data, Myanmar had the lowest per capita GDP in Southeast Asia in 2018.

Furthermore, because Myanmar’s economy largely relies on international investment and exported goods such as garment products, COVID-19’s disruption on the world economy has caused Myanmar to further suffer.

Especially affected by the economic decline are poor workers and households. Groups such as “street and mobile vendors and various day-rate workers in urban areas, and the landless and day-rate workers in rural areas” experience adverse effects as income, food security and employment decline, according to the International Growth Centre.

In the face of the COVID-19 virus, Myanmar suffers many challenges that make preventing and treating the virus extremely difficult. In all of this, Myanmar’s most vulnerable populations – the displaced, the Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s poor – are at the greatest disadvantage. Although there have been efforts by the government to provide financial aid for preventative measures and help from humanitarian organizations, it is not enough. These vulnerable groups are still hugely at risk from COVID-19.

Silvia Huang
Photo: Flickr