Myanmar Denials Define COVID-19 Response


Myanmar military representatives stand during a regular session of the Union Parliament, March. 11, 2020.


© 2020 AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo

In a world beset by the coronavirus pandemic, denial is becoming an increasingly rare commodity – but don’t tell that to Myanmar’s government, which still claims there are no cases of COVID-19 in the country.

Astonishingly, government spokesperson Zaw Htay pronounced that the absence of reported infections to date is due to Myanmar’s “lifestyle and diet.” He added that because Myanmar citizens generally paid for purchases with cash instead of credit cards, they were unlikely to spread the virus. Such irresponsible statements clash with everything known about the coronavirus outbreak, defy reality, and only serve to give a false sense of security to the country’s people about the disease and their risks of infection.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, reiterated in a nationwide speech on March 16 that no cases have been found, while calling for citizens to financially support a government fund being set up to fight the disease. Neither she nor Zaw Htay pointed out the obvious – that the virus is now in at least 155 countries worldwide and respects no borders. Myanmar is vulnerable because it shares a 2,227-kilometer porous border with China where workers and migrants cross daily. And it borders Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, all of which have reported COVID-19 cases.

Pressed by reporters during a media conference, Zaw Htay acknowledged there could be doubts about the lack of COVID-19 cases, yet he warned that the government would tackle “fake news” about the virus circulating online. The government’s public lack of concern has sparked rumors and speculation about the government’s response, leaving many distrustful and unable to make informed decisions for their families. As seen in Wuhan, China, early government restrictions on reporting COVID-19 by medical workers and journalists led to a delayed response that fueled a subsequent explosive growth in cases.

The biggest step taken by the President’s Office was on March 13 when it cancelled Myanmar New Year celebrations (known as Thingyan) amid news of three suspicious deaths. The government also prohibited large-scale public gatherings until the end of April, recognizing that action is needed but still without providing accurate public information.

The last thing Myanmar’s people want from their government is another cover-up. Being transparent, providing factual information in a timely way, and dropping half-baked theories of national exceptionalism to a global pandemic is what’s needed. To counter the unchecked spread of the disease, the government should be actively monitoring cases and working with communities to protect those most vulnerable.