HEALTH IS A HUMAN RIGHT How the Myanmar Junta is Violating Humanitarian Principles in their COVID-19 Response

In addition to a vengeful campaign of human rights violations committed by state-backed forces, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to increase the death toll in Myanmar. Health care workers working to control the spread of the pandemic and treat patients are being locked up by the junta. Myanmar needs health care workers now more than ever. Their expertise is critical to providing life-saving solutions. Yet, the military is choosing to preserve their self-interests instead of helping the country’s heroic health professionals 

Since the military junta seized power in a coup on February 1, disorder and chaos set the tone for their illegitimate rule. The junta’s disregard for life amounts to crimes against humanity. In their pursuit for power, security forces have ruthlessly killed and tortured over 900 innocent civilians since the military coup. They have arrested and detained senior health officials and created a climate of fear for press freedom and civil rights. The growing threat of the pandemic and its impacts on civilians is being described as the ‘perfect storm’ by the United Nations.1 There are currently over 200,000 cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar, and the numbers continue to rise daily. Aside from the ever-present tyranny of the state, citizens do not have access to life saving supplies, including oxygen and personal protective equipment. 

The demand for health supplies has also driven the market price up, posing yet another threat to Myanmar’s overwhelmed health care infrastructure. Civilians across the country are lining up in front of pharmacies waiting to purchase painkillers, cough medicine and multivitamin pills, all of which are in short supply and have nearly doubled in price. Face masks are in low supply with prices ‘beyond the reach of everyday people.’2 Funeral services are overwhelmed as hundreds of bodies are being registered daily at cemeteries and crematoriums. The majority are dying from a lack of oxygen.3 The National Unity Government expressed concern at the junta’s approach in handling the increase in cases in a statement which stated, “Myanmar people who are now going through the third wave of the pandemic, are seeing their health entitlements being denied by the regime.”4 

In this short briefing paper, the Network for Human Rights Documentation (ND-Burma) will draw upon the four humanitarian principles which refer to healthcare as a human right. In this context, the failings of the military junta will be highlighted. In their lack of response to the pandemic, they are willingly leaving behind the most vulnerable in society. While the military council is not a humanitarian agency, they’re still equipped with the tools and resources to respond with concerned urgency. Health is a human right. But in Myanmar, the junta is stripping this right to access healthcare, treatment, and resources.