“There have been various reactions to the government’s calls for public cooperation in their fight against the pandemic. The Myanmar government’s response to COVID-19 has been shaped by its long-term aim of national unity.”, Ponpavi Sangsuradej, 3rd-year PhD student at SOAS, University of London, discusses Myanmar community-initiated responses to COVID-19 in reflection to ongoing challenges in the region and recommendations for policymakers.
Myanmar is not unfamiliar with disaster. The country was hit by the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that left 90,000 confirmed deaths and $10 billion in damage (Hurricanes: Science and Society, 2015). Defying the military government’s resistance to local and international responses, the mobilisation of Burmese citizens saved the Irrawaddy Delta (Adams, 2009). In 2020, Myanmar’s elected government is overseeing their prevention of COVID-19, but the self-mobilisation of community remains prominent. While the Myanmar government frames its efforts against the disease as demonstrating and inspiring national solidarity, many of its responses have failed to account for the pervasive social and economic divisions within the country. This article analyses and identifies various community-based responses that highlight existing problems such as high inequality, informal settlement, and ethnic tensions.
A Divided Nation
Since its independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has been plagued by decades of civil war between ethnic minorities and the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) that took state control since the 1962 coup. This authoritarian rule resulted in further ethnic conflict and economic mismanagement that still persists to this day. Although the country saw its first freely elected government in 2015, poverty remains an important issue in Myanmar. The World Bank reported that the poor population in rural areas is , where economic development is more prevalent. The poorest families lived in suggesting a geographical correlation between poverty and the ongoing ethnic conflicts.
Economic and social development projects have been concentrated in urban areas such as the Mandalay and Yangon regions. However, urban poverty has become a concern. For example, Yangon’s informal settlements made up 400,000 people or 8% of the region’s population (UN-Habitat Myanmar, 2020). The socioeconomic divides both within urban areas and between urban and rural settlements are evident in various official and community-based responses to the COVID-19 crisis, thus posing a real challenge to the already divided nation.
State Inefficiency amid Public Health Crisis
Back in March 2020, although Myanmar only saw five positive COVID-19 cases, they caused heightened alarm among citizens. With factories closed and impending lockdown, tens of thousands of Burmese migrants were returning from Thailand and Malaysia. However, the Myanmar government was not ready to cope with a large number of returnees. Myanmar citizens were alarmed by inconsistent state quarantine procedures. With migrants confused, many of them resisted quarantine enforcement, crossed the Thailand-Myanmar border undocumented or tried to flee from the buses before the Yangon’s Aung Mingalar station to avoid checkpoints and mandatory quarantine (Ye Mon, Hein Thar and Eaint Thet Su, 2020). News channels displayed chaotic scenes where migrants were trying to catch taxis or sitting among other passengers. Inconsistent enforcement of quarantine exacerbated the anxiety. For example, two thousand returnees were reportedly admitted to a quarantine facility while the next day many thousands of newcomers were let go without having to go through the same procedure (ibid.). Rules and measures also applied differently in different regions and states. COVID-19 testing was only available to those who had symptoms which worried the citizens because of asymptomatic cases. Questions such as “who will have to go through state quarantine?”, “why did some get away?” or “who will get tested?” were whispered. Lack of resources meant insufficient staff and testing kits at border checkpoints.
Myanmar’s macroeconomic fallout is heavily affecting the country’s households (see Figure 1). From April to May 2020, the Asia Foundation surveyed 750 businesses who turned out to have laid off 16 per cent of their workforce due to COVID-19 (The Asia Foundation, 2020). Moreover, the government’s new social distancing regulation put a burden on vulnerable society members. One of the industries heavily hit by the crisis is construction. The government has imposed new rules of 50 people per construction site, a significant decrease from 1000 workers during pre-COVID times (Rhoads et al., 2020). This resulted in a huge drop in employment of day labourers.
One of the main challenges is Myanmar’s informal economy. Its large unbanked population has become a problem to the government’s COVID-19 fund and Economic Relief Plan (CERP), which offers measures for a resilient recovery – including tax relief, credit for businesses, food and cash to households. The CERP has received criticism for its non-inclusiveness and inflexible spending targets (The World Bank, 2020). Two schemes targeted vulnerable families: a handout of five basic commodities (rice, cooking oil, salt, onion and beans) in April 2020, and a cash payment of (K40,000 or £22) in August 2020 (Htin Lynn Aung, 2020). However, the eligibility criteria were very narrow; a whole family would be excluded if any member owned land or was registered as having formal employment. In Myanmar’s traditional households, several generations live together. Due to these criteria, the entire family will miss out the government’s cash if even one member is ineligible (Rhoads, 2020). These measures deepened the vulnerabilities of those already most affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic.
Self-mobilisation in urban areas and challanges on informal settelements
There have been various reactions to the government’s calls for public cooperation in their fight against the pandemic. The Myanmar government’s response to COVID-19 has been shaped by its long-term aim of national unity. In contrast to ongoing and historical conflicts between the government, military, and the wider population, the pandemic presents an invisible and external common enemy that threatens the physical body of the nation and the individuals. A sense of solidarity has also pushed many civil society organisations to initiate their community-based response to, e.g., assisting government staff in food distribution. Mask-wearing in Myanmar is seen not just as a matter of self-protection, but as demonstrating a commitment to protect others. Other efforts include food donations by local charities, student blood donation drives, and hotel owners providing free stays to healthcare personnel (Rhoads et al., 2020). This solidarity also manifests through initiatives aimed at addressing the perceived gaps in the government response. In April, the charity group People to People distributed basic goods to 2,660 trishaw drivers across Yangon who have lost their income during lockdown (, 2020). Other charity groups provided assistance, including funeral services and a free 24/7 ambulance service. These types of community efforts are widely publicised on social media. For example, a story of Myanmar citizens donating their electricity subsidy to aid the state’s coronavirus fight hit the headlines. However, such solidarity efforts, while popular among urban dwellers who live in relatively more affluent areas, do not engage with or attempt to address the socio-economic problems that necessitated these campaigns in the first place.
Figure 2: Map of Informal Settlements in Yangon (UN-HABITAT Myanmar, 2020)
The scale of informal settlements in Yangon has posed a challenge to the slowdown of transmission. Around 400,000 people or 8% of Yangon’s population live in 423 informal settlements across the city (UN-Habitat Myanmar, 2020; see Figure 2). These communities have been under a threat of eviction since 2018. Moreover, Relief efforts by the state and NGOs are hindered due to a lack of data on the ground (ibid.). Moreover, according to a survey of the impact of COVID-19 on informal settlements, 81% of the surveyed households have at least one member who had lost their job in the past 30 days and 94% have reported a fall in income (ibid.). In addition to lost income, the lockdown has hindered communal projects that would have been of help during these times. For example, residents of urban savings groups used to meet daily before the pandemic to deposit savings, which enable them to save a small amount for recurring costs such as electricity, rent and food. Some groups even have savings for community development projects such as sewage works (Rhoads et al., 2020). However, the ban on assembly has prevented regular community gatherings that used to bring together ten or twenty people (Rhoads, 2020).
Civil society actions have been key to the prevention of COVID-19 in more disadvantaged areas, especially informal settlements. Community efforts in informal settlements underline the existing inadequacy of government function in the community. Local civil society organisation and self-organised parahita (voluntary sector) groups have used their local knowledge and contacts to act as leading responders. The parahita group has provided training and tools for preventing the spread of coronavirus (Rhoads et al., 2020). They have also coordinated with local and state government to distribute food to those who have not met the criteria for state aid. They have distributed water, masks, sprayed disinfectants, and organised waste collection (Rhoads et al., 2020). , half of the surveyed households fear eviction. As many residents lost their job in the informal sector, they decided to take loans for day-to-day expenses.
With an imminent fear of eviction from the government, several informal settlers’ groups have attempted to prove their worth as ‘good citizens’ and contribute to national solidarity. The Bawa Pann Daing business group from the informal settlement of Dagon Seikkan township started making masks in response to its shortage (Liu, 2020). Comprised of 15 women, the self-sufficient venture has produced 6000 hand-sewn cotton masks. The group donated around 5000 to the community and 800 masks to the local government. Often seen as society’s outcasts, the members were hoping that their contribution would alleviate the threat of eviction (ibid.).
Experience in Rural Areas
In contrast to the campaigns by civil society in urban areas, solidarity actions in rural areas are often driven by distrust toward a government that they feel has neglected them. Inconsistent quarantine measures mentioned earlier have confused not only domestic travellers but also locals. Different states and regions have varied rules ranging from zero to a 21-day quarantine in a state facility. Some even require a health certificate for travellers (Ye Mon, 2020). Left to fend for themselves, many villages have organised their own informal checkpoints, such as Figure 3, and forced quarantine procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure their safety. West of the Yangon region, the Phya Tha Dike village tract administrator and village elders have decided among themselves to set up a school as a quarantine facility – a similar measure adopted among many areas across the country. The villagers feel it is a crucial step as people in rural areas are already struggling to access healthcare services (Kyaw Ye Lynn, Ye Mon and Naw Betty Han, 2020 ). The Phya Tha Dike village only has one qualified healthcare worker, a midwife, and not enough tools and staff if an outbreak were to occur (ibid).
Figure 3: An informal checkpoint was set up to surveil visitors. Most migrants returned home in rural areas where the monitoring, testing and treating of COVID-19 are lacking. (The Transnational Institute (TNI), 2020)
There has been a rising antagonistic feeling, especially towards migrants seen as bringing a disease from abroad. Many returnees from big cities like Yangon also face suspicion and are forced to quarantine in a facility by the community despite an order from the government that allows domestic travellers to quarantine in a private home. Attitudes such as “we don’t know who’s infected, who’s not” cause fear and rifts in the community, as rumours are spread of returnees ignoring quarantine altogether. It is hard to check who follows home quarantine in a Burmese household, where private rooms are not always available.
Even though the villages take inspiration from state quarantine guidelines, there is no guarantee of a consistent standard. In Mon state, more than 36 township facilities operate largely on the community’s initiative (ibid.). While the government has sent some medical supplies, local civil society donated money and human resources to carry out the project. For example, a volunteer group formed in February has been running a community quarantine facility in Mon State’s Ye township at their own initiative. In April, the government ordered that all quarantine schemes organised by wards and villages need the approval of the regional committee, but this was met with resistance from locals (ibid.). Although local practices might not obey government rules, many communities prefer breaking the law to sacrificing their own safety.
Community responses to COVID-19 highlight existing social and economic divides that have long been mishandled by the government. Some positive responses seem to come mainly from relatively affluent urban dwellers, and the national solidarity aspiration to fight COVID-19 will not succeed if vulnerable groups are not included in this effort. Marginalised informal settlements are densely populated and scattered throughout the city, with low hygiene standards. The government is not going to eradicate the disease if they ignore these communities. Dealing with COVID-19 should be an opportunity for the state to realign its view of these communities as being part of society rather than forgotten outcasts.
The government continues its crackdown on critics just as it did after 2008 Cyclone Nargis (David Pilling, 2014). Community reactions to the central policies of regional and wards quarantine reflect wider political divides and mistrust between the central government and the provinces. As the state attempts to assert broad control over local organisation, it threatens the livelihood of many, especially ethnic minorities across the country. For example, anti-government statements have recently been banned in Kayah state (Zue Zue, 2020). Aung San Suu Kyi’s national solidarity aspiration is an illusion for many as the government continues their oppression, attempting both to eradicate the disease and to stifle criticism of their response.
 A village tract is the lowest subdivision of the Myanmar Government administrative structure.
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Zue Zue (2020) ‘Myanmar’s Kayah State Angers Activists with Protest Ban’, The Irrawaddy [online], 7 May. Available at: https://www.irrawaddy.com/specials/myanmar-covid-19/myanmars-kayah-state-angers-activists-protest-ban.html (Ac
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
* This article was informed by ‘COVID-19 Pandemic and Myanmar’s Response’ – an online discussion that took place on 16th May 2020. The event was organised by Indrė Balčaitė and the author, Ponpavi Sangsuradej, on behalf of the Burma Studies Reading Group, which used to meet at the London School of Economics and Political Science.