19 July 2024


They can’t breathe: Myanmar’s military rulers deny oxygen to their people in COVID crisis

Myanmar’s military leaders are reserving oxygen for themselves as hundreds of the people they rule die each week from COVID

By Paul Barker 

7 September 2021

Myanmar’s military leaders are reserving oxygen for themselves and their cronies as hundreds of the people they rule die each week from COVID-19. Bishop Paul Barker, who has taught in the country for many years, writes about the pain of losing friends – a pain deeply felt also by St Stephen’s Karen Congregation in Werribee.

My friend, Peter, died of COVID-19 in late July. A fit and healthy 74-year-old, Peter had no hospital he could go to for help. There was no official provision of oxygen, though some had been found privately. Peter died at home, with his wife and daughter beside him. Joy, his wife, is recovering herself from COVID, as is their daughter.

We expect a functioning health system, with free access to hospitals for COVID treatment, easy access for COVID tests, quick results and the supply of oxygen when needed. But Peter died in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.

There is no functioning medical system in Myanmar as health workers largely opposed February’s military coup. Doctors who seek to help people with COVID are harassed or arrested by authorities. Indeed, the former head of the country’s vaccination program has been arrested and accused of high treason. Oxygen is scarce, reserved for the junta and their cronies. Friends have told me how the military has confiscated oxygen tanks and concentrators from people, and forced factories to stop producing them. Queues defy curfew and arrests simply to scrounge oxygen for those gasping for breath. Millions of dollars of COVID aid money from the UN sent in February have been unaccounted for by the military.

More than 60 pastors in Chin State died of COVID in recent weeks, along with hundreds of others, a death toll that will be absent from any official record. Unofficial estimates suggest well over 100 deaths from COVID-19 each day in Yangon alone in recent weeks. No tests, no doctors, no oxygen.

In the two Bible colleges I have regularly taught in for the past 15 years, at least seven faculty have, or have had, COVID, some requiring oxygen. At least half a dozen clergy in Yangon diocese have COVID, and all the diocesan and Bible college drivers.

In a country plunged into a coup, led by a military who do not care and are only there to fleece the nation, again, COVID runs riot. Almost everyone knows someone with COVID. More than 20 of my friends, former colleagues and students, have COVID, several seriously, including the young.

My friend Peter continued to work “in retirement” following many years working in faith-based development organisations. He has had a long history of association with the Anglican Board of Mission, AOA and World Vision. Peter has two daughters in Melbourne. Alison attends St Alfred’s North Blackburn. She and her sister Wendy, and families, are grieving. Theirs is a grief exacerbated by distance, the difficulty of saying good-bye, the inability to return for a funeral and mutual comfort, and the anger at the illegitimate government’s evil disdain for people.

The Revd Moewin Tunkin, Priest-in-Charge of our St Stephen’s Karen Congregation in Werribee, has lost his aunty recently, despite her being able to source some oxygen. Aunty was a surrogate mother to Moewin when he was a teenager. They were close. Moewin is grieving her loss. Moewin’s uncle now is also ill with COVID. Numerous of the parishioners of St Stephen’s Karen congregation have had relatives and friends die of COVID in Karen State in Myanmar. Here is a large congregation grieving deeply.

It is easy to feel helpless. The military has frozen bank accounts, limited withdrawals, and plunged the nation back into widespread poverty. Ten years ago, after half a century of military rule, the once rice-exporting nation imported rice and 48 per cent of its people lived below the poverty line. Before COVID hit, the percentage of those living in poverty had halved under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Those in poverty are expected to double by next year. Coup and COVID are wreaking havoc as the infrastructure of the society collapses. A major humanitarian crisis is emerging.

Another friend, Ronald, whose mother died from COVID and who is himself recovering from COVID, is trying to source money for oxygen in his community on the edge of Yangon. It is risky, knowing authorities may find out and stop him or even arrest him. But Christian compassion compels him. His is far from a unique situation. Many others are seeking to do the same.

Anglican Overseas Aid has launched an emergency appeal through ABM for money to support people in dire need in Myanmar. This appeal will supply money for oxygen, medicines and personal protective equipment. There are secure avenues to ensure this support gets to those in need, via people known to and trusted by AOA. While church members will benefit, the church will also be able to offer help to others in their communities, a witness to Jesus’ love and generosity.

Let me urge your prayer and generosity. Details can be found here: https://anglicanoverseasaid.org.au/our-work/emergencies/myanmar-covid-19-appeal/ 

Bishop Paul Barker is Bishop of Jumbunna Episcopate and has taught in Myanmar for many years. He is Deputy Chair of the Board of Anglican Overseas Aid.

The Revd Moewin Tunkin.

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