Cases of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus are spreading fast in Karenni State’s Demoso Township, local health workers have said, as tens of thousands of civilians flee their homes in a bid to find safety amid an intense onslaught by the Myanmar military.
The highly infectious but less deadly variant has been spreading through the township for over a month, several local aid groups told Myanmar Now, with one charity worker estimating that half of all people in displacement camps there have now caught the virus.
Cases began rising nationwide in early February but then declined quickly from the start of this month, the junta’s health minister said last week. The ministry is now reporting about 500 cases per day.
But that figure does not include large numbers of cases in displacement camps, and in other areas of Karenni that do not have access to the healthcare system.
An officer from the Nway Oo Guru Lay Myar Covid Center, a facility set up last year to tackle the disease, told Myanmar Now that more than 50% of people in Demoso’s displacement camps have contracted the virus in recent weeks.
“It’s really difficult to give an exact number of cases as we don’t use test kits in diagnosing them,” he said. “Test kits are too expensive and it’s hard for us to bring them here as all the routes have been shut down.”
Many roads in the area have been impassable since fighting broke out in the town of Moebye last month.
An officer from a network of aid groups that has been helping the displaced people said the closures have made it impossible to acquire medicine.
“We could still buy medication and test kits before the battles in Moebye, but we weren’t able to buy anything at all after the battles started. We only have some cough medication and paracetamol left,” said the officer.
The military’s attacks in Karenni have included aerial bombings and heavy artillery fire targetting civilians areas, including places where displaced people were sheltering.
Around 70,000 of Demoso’s 90,000 residents have fled their homes as the violence has touched the majority of the township’s 150 villages, according to the Karenni Civil Society Network.
There are 15 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Demoso, each housing up to 600 IDPs, while others are staying in forests or have fled to neighbouring Shan State, an officer from the network said.
A displaced woman sheltering at a camp in Hpruso said healthcare services were limited there too.
“Nobody’s testing for Covid-19 at our camp,” she said. “But healthcare service providers come here sometimes. I’ve been here for two weeks and they’ve come once, although they only had painkillers.”
The camp was also struggling because donors were unable to send supplies due to the road closures, she said. “It’s really not easy for donors and healthcare service providers to come here,” she said.
Earlier this month the woman fled the Daw Paw Koo IDP camp in Karenni, where around 2,000 people were sheltering when junta aircraft dropped bombs near the camp, she said.
Since fighting broke out in the wake of last year’s coup, at least 221 civilians in Karenni have been killed, while 649 houses and 10 religious buildings have been destroyed, according to a statement issued earlier this month by the Progressive Karenni People Force, another civil society group.
In Karenni’s capital, Loikaw, cases appear to have fallen since violence died down in early February, said a member of another local charity who wanted to remain anonymous. But it is impossible to have a clear idea of case numbers state-wide, he said.
“There are places where we can’t go and test patients for our own security, so we don’t have an exact number,” he added. “We don’t have enough doctors and nurses or other staff. We can only give instructions via phone. We can’t go out at night for our own security either.”