No time to mourn: bodies pile up in Yangon as some lose multiple relatives to Covid-19 surge 

There is hardly any time or space to mourn the dead as the bodies pile up at Yangon’s Yay Way crematorium. Amid the throng of mourners, there is only room for one or two people to stand near the incinerator while their loved ones are cremated.

As soon as one body has turned to ashes, another goes inside. Snaking its way through the building is a line of dozens of corpses, all victims of an out-of-control surge of Covid-19 that has been made even deadlier by the junta’s cruelty and incompetence.   

“It’s only going to get worse from here,” said Bo Sein, the founder of the Yangon-based Bo Sein Social Services charity, which helps transport bodies. He recently recorded a viral Facebook live video showing the chaotic scenes at Yay Way.

“I lost my father, but I couldn’t just stand there and mourn him while other people have it even worse. I had to resume work as soon as possible.”

The two-minute long broadcast on Wednesday afternoon accumulated a million views. It depicted about 50 bodies lined up waiting to be incinerated, about half of which were wrapped in blankets or mats because coffins have sold out. 

Just two days before taking the video, Bo Sein cremated his own relatives; he lost his father and aunt to hypoxia, a condition caused by Covid-19 where the body does not get enough oxygen. Again, there has been no time for him to grieve. 

“I lost my father, but I couldn’t just stand there and mourn him while other people have it even worse. I had to resume work as soon as possible,” he told Myanmar Now.

Bodies waiting to be cremated at Yay Way cemetery on the evening of July 14 (Citizen journalist)

No oxygen  

Densely populated Yangon has been devastated by the latest surge. The country’s health system is in ruins after the junta turned its ire on medical workers, who were among the first to oppose its rule after the February 1 coup. 

Many doctors and nurses have been forced into hiding, while hospitals are full and usually unable to take new patients. Life-saving oxygen is in short supply, and the junta has ordered suppliers only to sell the precious resource to facilities under its control. 

The resulting damage is, almost literally, immeasurable; the daily death toll issued by the junta’s health ministry – 165 on Thursday – is far lower than the true number, local aid groups have told Myanmar Now.   

People waiting in line to fill oxygen tanks in Yangon on July 11 (EPA/EFE)

Bo Sein is not the only one who has lost more than one relative to the virus. One young woman, who asked not to be named, lost her mother and another two family members in the space of a week.

First she lost her grandmother on July 5, even after managing to get her admitted to Yangon General Hospital. Three days later her uncle, who had driven her grandmother to the hospital, began showing symptoms. He died before he could get treatment.  

By this time, the woman and her mother were self-isolating at home, but it was too late; her mother was showing symptoms. 

Yangon General Hospital, which had refused to give the woman a Covid test when her grandmother was admitted, refused to admit her mother, she said. 

“I wanted to send mum to the hospital since they’d have enough oxygen for her but I was afraid of something happening on our way. The hospitals didn’t accept her anyway,” she said. 

In one last bid to save her mother, the woman got up at 4am on Saturday last week to go to the South Dagon Industrial Zone in the hope of buying oxygen herself. She queued all day. Then at 5pm, while she was still waiting, she found out her mother had died.

“She was all I had left. Now I’m all alone in this world,” said the woman. 

Bo Sein said most of the deaths he has encountered happened because hospitals were unable to accept patients: “We mostly have to collect the bodies from their homes since the hospitals and clinics are no longer treating them.”

“I wanted to send mum to the hospital since they’d have enough oxygen for her but I was afraid of something happening on our way.

The hospitals didn’t accept her anyway.”

Medical staff and students during a February 22 anti-coup protest (Myanmar Now)

‘Egotistical fools’ 

While Yangon faces a waking nightmare, the junta is publishing propaganda dismissing widespread reports of oxygen shortages as fabricated. Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing has said there is enough oxygen, and media who report otherwise are spreading rumours to harm the junta, military-controlled newspapers said this week. 

During previous surges of the virus, which were successfully contained under the leadership of the National League for Democracy, the military often expressed disappointment via its spokesperson that the government wasn’t making enough use of military facilities to control the virus. 

“They’re nothing but egotistical fools who took the throne by force.”

After spending months killing, beating and arresting doctors and medics who joined or provided aid at anti-coup protests, the military now plans to cover the shortage of staff in the healthcare system by recruiting volunteers and freelance doctors.

Doctors facing arrest for taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement say that plan is doomed to fail. 

“They’re nothing but egotistical fools who took the throne by force,” a striking hospital superintendent told Myanmar Now. “It’s really sad that they’re in no shape to be able to alleviate the people’s suffering.” 

The junta’s health authorities either did not reply or could not be reached despite numerous attempts to contact them for comment on the Covid-19 situation. 

Doctors who have not been forced into hiding say there is little they can do to prevent the huge numbers of deaths Yangon is seeing. 

“We have very few volunteers and doctors. We don’t have a designated place to transfer the patients. These are the major challenges during this third wave,” said Dr Kyaw Min Tun, a medical officer who worked at a fever clinic covering Yangon Region.

During the first and second waves last year, clinics were able to test patients for underlying conditions and low blood oxygen levels, and then refer them to hospitals and Covid-19 centers able to treat them. That is no longer an option, Dr Kyaw Min Tin said.

As of mid-July, around 30% of all Covid-19 tests are returning a positive result. “You could say that a person in each family is sick now,” he added.

“We really have no one to rely on anymore.”

Figures collected by Myanmar Now from four major Yangon-based social support groups this week showed the number of funerals being held has risen from 100 per day to 600 per day.

Since very few can access the healthcare system anymore, said Dr Kyaw Min Tun, ordinary people must redouble their efforts to fight the virus with the only tools left to them: social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing, and isolating sick family members as best as possible.    

“This is the only way, I think,” he said. “We really have no one to rely on anymore.”

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