Fri, January 21, 2022


Myanmar cemeteries overcrowded, volunteers overworked from deadly third wave of Covid-19

YANGON: As Myanmar suffers its deadliest surge in Covid-19 and its citizens suffer from massive shortages in oxygen, bodies pile up in its crematoriums.

"We have to transport around 20 to 30 bodies per day. Some days, we cannot even get them all," said Ko Min Din from the Myittar Thingaha humanitarian group.

Ko Min Din says the large numbers of deaths during the third wave of Covid-19 means that groups like Myittar Thingaha are outstretched and overworked.

"We cannot afford any rest days. We pick up the body, get the death certificate, and send it to the cemetery. When it is our turn, we give it to the cemetery and we leave," says Ko Min Din. 

The sheer number of deaths mean that such groups also have to cooperate with each other.

"Even if we are seeing less work at a certain moment, other groups will ask for help. We have to be in contact with at least another group: for instance, if we are picking up two or three bodies in East Dagon, we have to ask others for help. The help goes both ways," says Ko Min Din. 

India and Indonesia

Myanmar's neighbour India saw record numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths during the past few months. 

According to a report from the VOA, places across India were burying the dead in mass graves alongside the river or even carry out mass cremations at parking lots as India seen a total of 750,000 deaths so far.  

"I've been here since 7am. There are at least 15 ambulances that are carrying two or three bodies each. The eight ambulances over there have been waiting since the morning," quoted the VOA article.

A similar situation in Indonesia, regarded by most experts as the new Covid-19 epicenter.

BBC reports that firefighters now have to carry those that died at home, most of whom live on their own, from a lack of oxygen. 

BBC says that while such cases were limited to two or three bodies, there are now at least 20 such incidents since Indonesia started seeing a rising amount of Covid-19 cases in July. 

Third wave

The third wave of Covid-19 is undoubtedly much more brutal than the second one. 

The Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) had reported its finding of deadlier Covid-19 variants, such as the Alpha, Delta, and Kappa, in Myanmar since the middle of May. 

The MOHS had also warned that the variants were found to be much more infectious with one infection in a household would infect the other family members in the household.

Since then, the MOHS's daily reports show that since early July, the number of new cases per day as well as deaths have only grown larger and has been regularly breaking previous records.

Lack of oxygen

The disparity between the supply and demand of oxygen is extremely apparent. 

Kale was one of the earliest examples within Myanmar.  Volunteer and civil organisations report that funerals have been taking place in every street.

Oxygen cylinders and other equipment were ordered from places such as Yangon, Mandalay and Monywa initially.

Later, Kale locals managed to pool together funds to set up an oxygen plant.  The plant, despite being able to pump out 78 units of 40 litre cylinders per day, started its operation on July 9,but had not been able to solve the demand in Kale.

Similarly, Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, also started seeing the crippling demand for oxygen. Many groups that were previously able to sell or donate oxygen to those that needed it could no longer keep up. 

Factories within industrial zones such as those in South Dagon or Shwepyithar also could not fulfil the overwhelming demand.

"I've been waiting since morning. The 40 liter cylinders cannot be refilled anymore and only the 10 and 15 liter ones could be refilled. They say 40 liter refills can only resume tomorrow and for now, I will have to take whatever I can get," said a person queuing up in front of an oxygen plant in South Dagon industrial zone.

Death from lack of oxygen

According to the WHO, around 80 percent of Covid-19 positive patients will suffer from mild symptoms with most of them not requiring hospitalization. However, around 15 percent of them will require oxygen support and the other 5 percent will need to be attached to ventilators. 

Volunteer, charity and civil groups within Yangon say that the demand for more oxygen and deaths as a result of not having access to oxygen have been climbing precipitously.

"There are many times where we take the patient in the car and have to go around town to look for oxygen," said a volunteer.

The MOHS's reports state that there were 1,435 deaths from July 1 to 17 from Covid-19.

This is a tremendous spike compared to the beginning of July where only a few dozen were dying each day. By July 13, over hundred people were dying each day.

According to volunteer workers, the actual numbers on ground could be much higher. 

"Yesterday, a father and son were both found dead at home. We were called up and informed by the sister of the son. According to her, they definitely were suffering from Covid-19," said Ko Min Din. 

The sister in question lost contact with both and upon arrival at their home, found both her brother and father dead.

"There were no injuries. The son died sitting on the chair and the father had passed away on the bed," said Ko Min Din.

Cemeteries are also now flooded with bodies and despite continuous work from the crematorium staff, bodies line up the hallways in the hundreds, waiting to be cremated.

"For today (July 17), we have to keep the body in the car. If it's our turn, we reverse the car in and place the body on a shelf. So it doesn't look too ugly but there is a long line of vehicles now," said Ko Min Din.

He also speaks of difficulty of obtaining documentation and due process for the corpses.

"The authorization for the cemetery can only be obtained around 10am for us. We cannot go to the cemetery without it because the cemetery will only accept the body with that ticket. So by the time we get to the cemetery for the first time in the day, it is already past noon. There are at least 50 cars ahead of us already," said a person in-charge of another charity organization. 

Ko Min Din also warns of the danger of more infections at the cemetery itself. 

"Some of the family members want to send the dead off. They are not wearing PPEs or other equipment like us. They will be easily infected. And instead of cremation, they should consider burying the dead. Right now, crematorium staff have to pile up bodies and then cremate two to three bodies at a time. The staff are also at risk of being infected. It will be better if the bodies are buried," said Ko Min Din. 

As of this moment, there is no way to assess whether those dead bodies arriving at cemeteries across Yangon are from Covid-19 as most groups helping transport the bodies are not able to conduct tests.

However, what is for certain is that the deaths are happening, as proven by scores of volunteer workers scrambling around town to pick up dead bodies from homes.

The sights and sounds of a busy city that is Yangon has all but disappeared, replaced by the blaring sirens of ambulances and vehicles belonging to all charity group.

The streets of Yangon are empty while dead bodies are piling up in the its crematoriums.

Published : July 20, 2021

By : Zaw Min Naing/Eleven Media/ANN