Myanmar confirms first two cases of COVID-19; returning migrant workers pose concern


Myanmar announced its first two cases of coronavirus infection on Monday after weeks of officials downplaying the risk to the country while neighbouring nations saw their infection counts skyrocket.

The Ministry of Health and Sports said a Myanmar national in Chin state who recently returned from the U.S. had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 23, and is now receiving treatment in isolation at the Tiddim Township General Hospital.

A second Myanmar national in Yangon region, who had travelled to the United Kingdom and was already in a 14-day quarantine, also tested positive on March 23. The patient has been transferred to the Waibargi Infectious Disease Hospital and in receiving treatment in isolation, the notice said.

Authorities are tracking down individuals who came into contact with the two confirmed cases and will hold them for observation, the ministry added.

Monday’s announcement marks a sea change for Myanmar, where as recently as last week, government spokesperson Zaw Htay had said that “the lifestyle and diet” of Myanmar’s citizens helped to prevent any infections in the country

Earlier this month, Health Ministry spokesperson Khin Khin Gyi Myanmar was infection-free because of the relative distance of the virus’ epicentre in Wuhan, China.

Observers have questioned whether limited testing in Myanmar had caused officials to underestimate the risk of the coronavirus, and now that two cases have been confirmed, rural areas of the country are dangerously lacking in the resources and infrastructure needed to head off an outbreak that has sickened more than 378,000 people across the globe and left more than 16,500 dead.

Even prior to Monday’s announcement, at least 15 people had tests pending for suspected COVID-19 infection, and reports of suspicious respiratory-related deaths in various parts of the country had been spreading on social media.

The confirmations came as authorities in Myanmar and its neighbour Laos began rolling out strict quarantine measures for tens of thousands of migrant workers returning home from Thailand amid growing restrictions there and ahead of April 14-16 New Year festivities.

Thailand is estimated to have four to five million migrant workers, mainly from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

In Laos, which has yet to confirm a case of COVID-19, a Ministry of Health official told RFA’s Lao Service that migrant workers heading home from neighbouring Thailand are being funnelled through major international checkpoints, where authorities are better equipped to screen entrants for symptoms of infection, and that all would be required to submit to two weeks of quarantine on arrival.

“Those who come from affected countries have to be inspected for viral infection,” said the official, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“Mostly they come through international border gates, as the smaller checkpoints are all closed, and those who are suspected of an infection are detained for further inspection and treatment at a designated hospital.”

Even migrant workers who are not suspected of infection are being quarantined for 14 days before they are permitted to travel on to their home towns and villages, where authorities are being notified of their return “in order to let their local official know where they are and monitor them.”

Last week, authorities in Laos shuttered all small checkpoints for Lao and Thai nationals across their countries’ shared border, suspended issuance of e-visas and tourist visas, recommended that Laotians refrain from any nonessential travel abroad, banned large gatherings, and closed all entertainment venues. (Source: RFA)