I feared we all would die from COVID - 19 in my village in Myanmar

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I feared we all would die from COVID - 19 in my village in Myanmar

Y village was among the first to be hit when a third wave of COVID - 19 sweeps across Myanmar in May. My mother, father, sister, sister and wife all died ill, we lived before in the terror of civilian government that seized power from military on Jan. 1 and has since killed 946 people. When COVID-19 arrived in Western Myanmar's Chin State of Tedim township, I feared we all would die from the virus but, by the grace of God, we have survived.

Since the coup, just over 7,500 people have died of COVID-19 — it was already enough to make Myanmar's per capita death rate the worst in Southeast Asia. But few people are treated and even fewer are tested in public hospitals, so the real death toll is unknown. We know that in recent weeks funeral homes and crematoriums across the country have been overwhelmed.

Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, in an Aug. 1 speech in which he declared himself Prime Minister, accused protesters who oppose military rule of deliberately spreading COVID - 19. It is the generals who have weaponized COVID - 19, turning this deadly pandemic into yet another attempt to control a population that has shown steadfast resistance.

Since the coup, the Tatmadaw ( as Myanmar's military is called) has targeted medical workers who have been in front of a nationwide civil disobedience movement. More than 150 doctors and nurses have been arrested, and to date 240 attacks on healthcare workers had occurred, according to the World Health Organization ; many of those injured were first responders to military violence.

The Tatmadaw has also deliberately obstructed lifesaving care for COVID - 19 patients across the country. Soldiers have seized oxygen cylinders and blocked people from refilling them. During the military's calls for volunteers to aid its own COVID-19 prevention efforts, it has also raided and looted community clinics. On July 16 security forces posed as COVID -19 patients to arrest Medical Volunteers and entrap medical personnel.

Meanwhile, ethnic states and other areas of resistance to military rule are facing the double burden of continuing military attacks, which have displaced 230,000 people since the coup. Amid COVID - 19 movement restrictions, Regime forces continue to shell civilian areas, burn homes and clash with resistance groups.

In recent weeks, the military has deployed more troops, assaulted villages indiscriminately, raided homes and destroyed food supplies, causing hundreds to flee.

Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, warned: 'The junta is weaponizing COVID 19 for its own political gain by suffocating democracy movement and seeking to win legitimacy and control it craves by deliberately fueling a humanitarian disaster and then co-opting the international response.

As the virus grew in my township, my community — like many others across the country — took COVID -19 response into its own hands.

To deal with this crisis, we built emergency response teams made up of local volunteers from all walks of life. On June 4, the military announced a stay-at-home order for several townships of Chin State, including mine, but few paid attention. Nevertheless, when our volunteer emergency response team announced a complete lockdown of its own on July 24 and deployed dozens of city security guards to enforce it, the vast majority of people stayed home.

Volunteers for hours also lined up in front of military factories to refill oxygen cylinders for sick people who couldn't access public hospitals, or were boycotting health services. The military only stopped refilling cylinders when the military restricted the private sell of oxygen July 12.

Another task managed by volunteer teams was the purchase of food and household goods — allowing only five people per village to go to the market to collect things for their communities.

I also volunteered by writing about the potential situation for potential donors. Fortunately, our fundraising had enabled us to order medical equipment, although military-imposed roadblocks and checkpoints delayed delivery by several days. When the medical equipment finally arrived our village, volunteer doctors and nurses used it to provide home-based care for most critical patients.

Sadly, this care came too late for my neighbor who died on July 4 in her home. Before her death, she told her family that she was scared military would raid and arrest her if she went to a military-run public hospital.

Now the military is trying to block our grassroots efforts to fight COVID - 19. In late July, soldiers met with community elders in my township and told them that our volunteer team should cease its activities. The next day, military appointed administrators were manning the perimeter of Tedim town.

We will never trust the military, who we fear will use the cover of COVID prevention to increase its surveillance. Around the same time soldiers began manning COVID checkpoints, they also started going from village to village across my state, raiding homes searching for evidence of armed resistance and dislacing hundreds.

Even though there is no armed resistance in my village, I joined many young men and fled hiding in a remote area until the soldiers passed. Even though we knew our movement putting ourselves at risk of contracting the virus, we had more fear to us about what soldiers would do if we stayed home.

Sometimes when I think about my country's situation, I feel depressed and cannot sleep. As a journalist, I also fear for my security and what of my family. I pray we will survive this COVID - 19 outbreak and the future violence which the military is sure to inflict.

During this pandemic, it is not just the virus, but the military that is killing us.

— As told to Emily Fishbein, a freelance journalist and focussing on human rights and social justice in Myanmar.