The fight to contain a surge in coronavirus infections in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is being complicated by mistrust of government health guidelines that leads local villagers to reject masks and embrace conspiracy theories, relief workers and residents told RFA.
Rakhine’s surge in cases comes amid a 21-month war between Myanmar forces and the Arakan Army (AA) which has driven some 200,000 civilians into crowded makeshift camps that can be breeding grounds for infections.
To hamper AA communications, the government has restricted mobile internet access in northern townships for more than a year, making it hard to get news about COVID-19.
With cases in Rakhine now accounting for nearly half of the country’s 882 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday, relief workers say they are concerned that many locals are not heeding official health advice, while misinformation about the pandemic circulates.
“Even virus-infected people don’t believe they are infected,” said Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group, adding that the problem lies mainly with people living in rural areas.
“The health department informs them that they are infected, and then they call me and say that it’s not true because they don’t have any symptoms,” he said. “That’s why they are suspicious whenever something is wrong with the test results.”
Within the last few weeks, the Ministry of Health and Sports reported more than 300 new coronavirus cases, mostly in Rakhine state, which had registered no infections during the initial weeks of the pandemic earlier this year.
Despite the surge, many of Rakhine’s rural residents do not believe the outbreak is serious, with some being told that the current strain of coronavirus is a weaker version of the one that has infected other countries. Other residents believe the COVID-19 surge is only government-orchestrated propaganda to frighten ethnic Rakhine people who live in the strife-torn multiethnic state.
“As they are uneducated people, they don’t believe what the government announces about the viral infection and think that it is government-orchestrated propaganda to scare Rakhine residents,” Khin Maung Than, a resident of Myaung Bwe Chay village in Mrauk-U township, told RFA.
“Many of them hold the same belief,” he said.
Win Myint, Rakhine state spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, said people must not dismiss what the government says about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials efforts to curb infections have not been effective because people are not complying with directives, he said.
“I would like to tell people not to misinterpret what the government is doing. The virus is spreading in Rakhine state. It is true,” he said.
‘Won’t wear masks’
On Monday, Myanmar registered 882 confirmed COVID-19 cases, nearly half of which were in Rakhine. The total number of coronavirus-related fatalities in the country has remained unchanged at six since late April.
Than Tun of the Nanyeik Karuna Free Oxygen Aid Group in the ancient Rakhine capital of Mrauk-U said his NGO hands out free protective face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer to the public, but the supplies largely go unused.
“We give them masks today, but they won’t wear them tomorrow,” he told RFA. “We feel sad and angry [about it]. They can’t get into the market without a mask. They wear them before they enter the market, and then take them off once they are in.”
Fourteen people were confirmed COVID-19 positive in Mrauk-U as of Aug. 28, according to Myanmar’s Health Ministry, prompting authorities to lock down streets on which the infected people live. But other town residents complained about the lack of restrictions in other places with newly confirmed cases.
Meanwhile, more than 180 COVID-19 cases have been recorded in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, hit hard by a surge in domestically transmitted cases, and where more than 400 people are now quarantined.
To curb the spread of the virus, the Myanmar government placed Rakhine’s 3.2 million residents under a partial lockdown on Aug. 26, allowing only shops selling essential goods to remain open.
Two days later, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to send food supplies and provide financial support for the state, where COVID-19 restrictions and the ongoing armed conflict have cut off trade and transportation routes with neighboring areas.
Rakhine, which borders the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh, is Myanmar’s poorest state, with a population mostly engaged in farming and fishing. The literacy rate for Rakhine state is 84.7 percent, compared to the national rate of 89.5 percent, according to 2018 government figures.
Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.