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Protesting the Coup: Healthcare Workers in Myanmar Walk Off the Job to Support Democracy

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It’s been a horrifying and wild two days in the country of Myanmar, where the military recently staged a successful coup against the civilian government. Former leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains in custody. The unrest started in the wake of allegations of fraud in the country’s November election. International human rights experts say there were some irregularities in the election, but nothing to suggest widespread voter fraud.

The overthrowing of the government couldn’t have come at a worse time. Myanmar is in the middle of a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 as officials prepare to administer the vaccine. It’s not clear how the newly self-imposed military government will respond to the crisis.

Healthcare workers are concerned about what this means for the health of the country, considering the current health system is considered fragile, at best.

Standing Up for Democracy

Following Monday’s coup, healthcare workers across Myanmar began staging a civil disobedience campaign to protest the change in leadership. Participants wore red and black ribbons to show their support for the ousted civilian government, while outright refusing to work for the newly installed military government.

Dr. Zun Ei Phyu, who lives in Yangon, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital, was one of the many providers to hit the streets. “We want to show the world we are totally against military dictatorship and we want our elected government and leader back,” he said. “We want to show them we will follow only our elected government. Not the military.”

Other providers wore printed off copies of ribbons in lieu of the real thing. Protesters also donned the three-finger salute, which has become a symbol of pro-democracy after it was first used in neighboring Thailand when that country’s military staged a coup of their own just six years ago.

Some providers refused to work as they hit the streets to protest, while others continued their work at government-run facilities even as they voiced their opposition to the military government.

Many providers switched their focus to caring for the protesters. They started working the charitable clinics that had been closed during the pandemic to help those in need.

“We give free treatment and medicine to anyone who is in need,” Dr. Zun Ei Phyu added. These clinics usually operate using private donations from the local community.

Where Will Myanmar Go from Here?

The coup remains a threat to democracy and the country’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 crisis.

In the early days of the pandemic, Myanmar’s civilian government responded just as one would expect. The borders around the country remained virtually closed for months, while travelers and residents were asked to stay at home.

That approach seemed to work until September, when the country went from around 1,000 cases of the coronavirus to over 14,000 just a month later. Myanmar is now home to over 140,000 confirmed cases and 3,100 deaths.

International human rights experts continue to monitor the situation closely, but it’s not clear how the recent coup will affect the country’s response.

Ronan Lee, a visiting scholar at Queen Mary University of London’s International State Crime Initiative, believes the military government will likely use the crisis as a political football. “You could expect the military to take full advantage of COVID-19 as a political opportunity, not as a health care responsibility to the people of Myanmar,” he said.

History shows us there’s good reason to be worried. Military coups rarely translate to improved medical services.

Back in 2000, decades after the former military seized control of the government, the World Health Organization ranked Myanmar’s health system as one of the worst in the world. In 2010, Myanmar’s health expenditure was around 1.87% of its GDP in 2010, shockingly low even for a developing country. In 2019, U.S. healthcare spending accounted for 17.7% of our country’s GDP.

When the pandemic first hit Myanmar, the country reported just 0.71 intensive care unit beds and 0.46 ventilators per 100,000 population, which wasn’t nearly enough to combat even a moderate outbreak, according to the WHO. The country’s healthcare system remains precarious. The healthcare industry had just 6.7 physicians per 10,000 people in 2018, significantly lower than the global average of 15.6 in 2017.

Myanmar is just a few days into the vaccination effort after securing 1.5 million doses from India. Officials are urging caution, considering the country is running low on supplies.

Experts on the ground anticipate that the newly imposed military government will likely use the crisis to restrict free speech.

According to Lee, when the military talks about getting the virus under control, it means “locking down the community and preventing opportunities for public expressions of opposition to their rule.” He later added, “I expect they’ll use the pandemic as a shield to defend them from scrutiny.

Western nations are calling for the release of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen since she was taken into custody.

U.S. President Biden has threatened sanctions against the country for subverting democratic principles. Commenting on the coup, he said the military should not “overrule the will of the people”.

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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