Residents across Myanmar’s biggest city are defying a military curfew in a desperate search for oxygen to keep their loved ones breathing as a new COVID-19 wave crashes over the coup-wracked country.
The spike in cases is the latest blow to Myanmar, already suffering from a February coup and a bloody crackdown on dissent that has killed more than 900 people and gutted the economy.
Hundreds lined up across Yangon as the sun rose on Wednesday in the hope of refilling blue oxygen cylinders to take home to family members stricken with the virus.
Some had brought chairs and prepared for a long wait. For others, it was too late.
“My sister was suffering from COVID-19 for three days,” Than Zaw Win said as he left one of the lines in the city of about 7 million people.
“In the first day, she was dizzy with low [blood] pressure ... and she suffered a lot yesterday as she couldn’t breathe well,” he said. “But while I was queueing to fill oxygen this morning, my niece called me to go back home as my sister had died.”
Authorities logged more than 7,000 new cases on Wednesday — compared with fewer than 50 per day in early May.
Millions in Yangon and the second city of Mandalay have been ordered to stay home, but the toll continues to rise and volunteer teams are stepping in to remove the bodies of victims from their neighborhoods.
Ye Kyaw Moe, a sailor, said he slipped out at 3am — half an hour before the lifting of a military-imposed curfew — to secure a place in the oxygen line. When he arrived at a refill center in Yangon there were already 14 others in front of him.
“I haven’t slept for the whole night” he said. “I also had to be careful to avoid the soldiers as we are still under martial law.”
The Burmese State Administration Council — as the military government calls itself — says there is no need for alarm.
“Actually we have enough Oxygen,” ran a headline in Tuesday’s Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-backed newspaper.
“The people do not need to worry about it so much and should not spread the rumor,” it quoted junta leader Min Aung Hlaing as saying.
Than Zaw Win disagreed.
“She had no other diseases... There is no way my sister would have died if we had enough oxygen,” he said.
Vaccine rollouts have also been slow — only about 1.75 million people have been vaccinated in the country of 54 million, the junta said.
“The junta lacks the resources, the capabilities and the legitimacy to bring this crisis under control,” UN special rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said.
“The crisis ... is particularly lethal because of the pervasive mistrust of the military junta,” he said.
The spike is also compounding difficulties for already overstretched humanitarian workers.
“Moving staff to where they can do the most good, moving aid to communities who need it, all becomes more challenging,” a Red Cross spokesperson in the country said.
Myanmar is set to receive 4 million vaccine doses from China by the first week of next month — too late for those fighting for breath.
At another line in Yangon, Aung Kyaw was hoping to get more oxygen for his wife.
The last time he wanted to fill up his 40-liter cylinder, he was kept waiting for 24 hours, the
Unlike others, he said he cannot afford to travel across the city looking for refill centers where the lines are shorter.
“So I need to wait and queue here through rain or sun, and the whole night, too,” he said.
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