Volunteer health workers in Myanmar under stress as coronavirus death toll soars


Myanmar’s thousands of volunteers are a crucial element in the country’s COVID-19 response. As coronavirus infections soar, the work never seems to stop for volunteers who have stepped in to help carry those suspected of symptoms to quarantine centres or hospitals.

Fatalities hit a new record for one day on Sunday with 41 deaths, bringing the total to 412 from only seven a month ago. The toll is now the third highest in Southeast Asia and both deaths and case numbers are doubling faster than anywhere in the world according to Reuters figures.

“The situation is not good. Our ambulances and crews can’t even get a break,” said Kyi Myint, 66, who leads a volunteer group in Yankin township, one of the worst hit in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon.

The number of cases rose to 17,794 in the country of 53 million, which has one of the world’s weakest health systems.

More than 45,000 people, including COVID-19 patients, those yet to be tested, their close contacts and returning migrant workers, are being housed in buildings from schools and monasteries to government offices and tower blocks.

Most of those are run by volunteers, who generally get no compensation. They are given whatever protection equipment is available and sometimes food and a place to stay.

“Without the volunteers, I don’t think we could have survived,” said Aye, a recovered patient who did not want to give her full name for fear of being identified.

Volunteers also often transport the bodies of those who die at home.

Myanmar has 1.1 critical care beds per 100,000 people, according to a study published in Critical Care Medicine Journal in January. Neighbouring Thailand has nearly 10 times more.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the outbreak and the role of the volunteers.

“I usually get one or two hours sleep,” said volunteer Zar Ni, who marked his 29th birthday by working on Thursday. “I am happy to help. At first I feared I would be infected but I no longer do.”

Myanmar has imposed a broad lockdown to try to stop the virus from spreading, and the volunteers keep away from their families once they start work. Kyi Myint is staying with his 15-strong team in a Buddhist temple.

“This is not the time for depression, we are helping as much as we possibly can,” he said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)