In the shadow of an uprising, Kalay battles another scourge 

Myat Thuzar was in great pain and distress, unable to leave her home so that she could get the help she needed to give birth to her first child. 

It was 2am on June 29, and the 30-year-old resident of Thayarwaddy, a village south of Kalay in Sagaing Region, knew that time was running out. Her soon-to-be firstborn son was struggling to enter the world, but with a curfew in place from 8pm to 4am, she also knew that it wasn’t safe to go outside.

As dawn approached, her family searched frantically for somewhere to take her. But one after the other, every clinic and hospital they went to turned them away. At the gate of one hospital, they were bluntly told not to come back.

As in other parts of Myanmar, most medical facilities in Kalay are closed or barely functioning these days due to disruptions caused by a military coup that has thrown the country into chaos. But that wasn’t why Myat Thuzar faced rejection everywhere she went.

The reason she was forced to spend the final hours of her life without medical care was simple: She was infected with Covid-19, a disease that has been spreading virtually unchecked in Kalay in recent months.

“I understand their fear. But as doctors, they should at least have given her some kind words, instead of treating her like their mortal enemy at first sight,” said Myat Thuzar’s brother, Thet Naing Htun.

Hundreds of families in Kalay have been directly affected by the ravages of a pandemic that has brought ordinary life on much of the planet to a halt. At least 400 people have died in the town since late May, according to official figures. 

“This would have been her first child, and she didn’t even have a chance to give birth.”

Combined with the continuing unrest wrought by the military’s seizure of power five months ago, the outbreak has caused unprecedented hardship in the town and surrounding region. 

This tragedy is playing out in countless ways, through the lives of all those who have been forced to face the end without even the very basic level of medical attention normally provided by Myanmar’s healthcare system.  

In Myat Thuzar’s case, it is too late to hope for any improvement in this situation.

“This would have been her first child, and she didn’t even have a chance to give birth,” lamented her brother. “I can hardly imagine how she felt, knowing that no one was willing to help her.” 

Helpless victims

Myat Thuzar was diagnosed with Covid-19 on June 19. She had come down with a fever, and a rapid test administered by a local doctor confirmed that she had been infected with the coronavirus. 

Like many otherwise healthy young people, she had only mild symptoms. Because most of the town’s private clinics and hospitals were closed, she simply isolated at home, where her family fed her nutritious food to help her keep up her strength. She also exercised daily and was in high spirits as she anticipated her imminent motherhood.

But when she went into labour in the early hours of June 29, things became complicated. She started bleeding, and it soon became apparent that she needed medical attention. 

Her condition continued to deteriorate, and as the few places that could have helped her refused to do so, she spent her final hours in agony, until finally she became yet another helpless victim of Covid-19—not, in her case, of the disease itself, but of the fear it instils even in medical professionals.

Volunteers collect the body of a Kalay resident who died of Covid-19 on the morning of July 6. (CJ)

This fear has been palpable in Kalay since the beginning of June, when a partial lockdown was imposed to stem the rapidly rising number of cases. It isn’t known exactly how many in the town have contracted the virus, but it undoubtedly far exceeds the 200 or so currently receiving treatment at a local centre dedicated to tackling the disease.

The vast majority of those affected deal with it on their own, by staying at home and hoping for the best. Only when absolutely necessary do they seek outside assistance, according to Biaka, the vice president of the Kalay Social Organisation.

“Most don’t go to the Covid centre. But a lot of people from every township have contacted us to send serious patients to the hospital,” he said.

“There have been so many burials these days,” he added.

A bleak situation

Charity groups say the chief reason for the high number of deaths is the lack of oxygen for patients with acute cases of Covid-19. At least 40 people a day face emergency situations requiring oxygen, according to relief workers. 

While there are around 20 social welfare organisations, including church groups, in Kalay attempting to meet this need, a number of factors complicate efforts to increase supplies.

“People come to us for oxygen every day. There is, in fact, a place in Kalay where we used to be able to refill the tanks. But because of the shortage of electricity, we can’t get them refilled there anymore,” said Maw Maw, a local volunteer.

“Even if someone desperately needs oxygen, nobody will dare go out after 8 o’clock to get it. There have been cases of people being gunned down for going out at night.”

This means that organisations based in Kalay must send away to Mandalay to replenish their supply of oxygen, 30 tanks at a time. This normally takes three days, but with clashes between the military and resistance forces regularly breaking out along the main highway, there are no guarantees of prompt delivery. 

“It takes three days when there are no battles, but these days, we can’t say for sure when the oxygen will arrive,” Maw Maw explained.

Volunteers are also involved in efforts to collect the bodies of patients who succumb to Covid-19. In some cases, they arrive at the home of one of the deceased only to learn that another family member has also died just hours later. 

“The situation is quite bleak,” said Maw Maw.

The curfew, imposed by the military in an effort to strengthen its control over the town, has only made matters worse.

“Even if someone desperately needs oxygen, nobody will dare go out after 8 o’clock to get it. There have been cases of people being gunned down for going out at night,” said Maw Maw.

One resident of Kalay’s Taung Zalat ward told Myanmar Now that she was forced to watch loved ones suffer because she couldn’t go out at night to get the oxygen they needed.

The woman, who cared for her 99-year-old grandfather and four other family members with Covid-19, said she had to rely on doctor friends and charity groups to get oxygen.

“There is no ‘cure’, so we just take vitamin C and supplements, and other medications if there is fever. Since most hospitals are closed, we don’t have much of a choice,” she said.

Covid-19 as a cover for junta brutality

Volunteers say that the military has done nothing to help the people of Kalay deal with the crisis, but has simply left them to fend for themselves.

“In any case, there is nothing the junta can do without the support of doctors and nurses,” said one volunteer.

But the regime has not ignored the outbreak entirely. In fact, it has found it a convenient way to conceal its own deadly impact on Kalay’s civilian population.

In June, the bodies of two youths who died while under interrogation were returned to their families wrapped in plastic. They had to be buried right away, the authorities said, because they were infected with Covid-19. The families were not permitted to remove the plastic.

On June 23, at around 9pm, regime forces in Kalay opened fire on two people riding a motorcycle. The driver was killed instantly, but the passenger, 19-year-old Mai Nuam Za Thiang, suffered only a wound to her thigh.

She was taken to the Kalay Military Hospital, where her family was informed the next afternoon that she had died about an hour after she arrived there.  

Although the official medical report said that she had bled to death, her family was also told that they wouldn’t be allowed to see her because she had tested positive for Covid-19. They were also denied permission to hold a proper funeral.

“Even if no one in our immediate families has it, we all have at least one relative who has contracted the disease.”

The very next day, another victim of the junta’s brutality, 26-year-old Salai Van Hta Kyone, was killed in custody. His family was also told that they couldn’t examine his plastic-wrapped corpse because he, too, had supposedly died of Covid-19.

At the moment, Kalay is relatively quiet, after being the scene of some of the deadliest violence since the coup. However, residents fear that if fighting returns to the town, it will no longer be possible to flee because of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

If that happens, residents will be forced to live “in an absolute state of defeat inside their own houses,” said Zuala, a Kalay resident who has been active in the anti-coup movement.

He said he recognised the danger of the disease—“Even if no one in our immediate families has it, we all have at least one relative who has contracted the disease”—but said he would not allow it to prevent him from continuing with his resistance.

“I don’t care if my house gets bombed. The fight has to continue until we achieve absolute democracy,” he said.

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