A second wave of coronavirus infections in Myanmar may have been triggered by “returnees” from neighboring Bangladesh who illegally entered Rakhine state, which is now a COVID-19 hotspot, according to a senior government health official in Yangon.
Like Southeast Asian neighbors Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, Myanmar largely avoided widespread COVID-19 infections through the first half of the year. But the country of 54 million people has seen a deadly return of the virus since mid-August.
“It is possible that the second wave started from Rakhine,” Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of contagious disease prevention and eradication at Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
“The percentage of likely infections from those who had come in illegally from Bangladesh is high,” she said. “The infections spread from there into Rakhine, and then went to Yangon and various other places in Myanmar by plane.”
Khin Khin Gyi, like other government officials, uses the term “returnees” when referring to Rohingya from Rakhine state, because officially the Muslim ethnic minority doesn’t exist. The hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who live in Rakhine are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are denied Myanmar citizenship.
As of Wednesday, Myanmar registered 21,433 confirmed coronavirus cases. There have been 510 related fatalities and 6,084 recoveries.
Bangladesh, which has the 16th-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, recorded 373,151 confirmed infections on Wednesday, 5,440 deaths, and more than 286,600 recoveries.
When the number of infections began to rise in Bangladesh earlier this year, residents on Myanmar’s side of the border in Rakhine state requested that officials stop illegal returnees and cross-border trade between the Teknaf area of Cox’s Bazar district and Maungdaw township.
On Oct. 1, Maungdaw township administrator Aung Soe told RFA that trade had remained open until mid-year out of economic necessity, and that about 150 Rohingyas from the refugee camps returned on their own between April and June.
Eight of them were found to be infected with the coronavirus, he said. Three other Rohingyas involved in the border trade with Teknaf also tested positive.
Myanmar’s Health Ministry reported that 14 people who traveled to Bangladesh during the months of June, July, and August all later tested positive for the virus.
But Dr. Sai Win Zaw Hlaing, director of Rakhine state’s Public Health Department, said it was difficult to verify whether the second wave of COVID-19 came from Bangladesh and spread from Rakhine state to other parts of Myanmar.
“We cannot say definitely that there’s a connection between those who were found to be infected in Maungdaw and those here [in Sittwe],” he said. “There are flights from Yangon [to Rakhine state], and there are those who come from various regions by car [to Rakhine’s capital] as well.”
“There are also those who have returned from Bangladesh on boats that operate illegally,” he added. The government has cut off boat traffic as a COVID-19 containment measure.
Three years ago, Myanmar forces led a brutal crackdown on Rohingya communities in the state’s northern townships, leaving thousands dead and driving more than 740,000 others to flee to Bangladesh, where they live in sprawling refugee camps.
Though most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say that they do not want to return to Myanmar absent policy changes to address rampant discrimination and persecution, a few dozen have trickled back over the border without going through official repatriation procedures.
Myanmar has the fourth-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), behind the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.
But experts have said the quest to find the source of infections in Myanmar is hampered by limited contact tracing, poor compliance with coronavirus countermeasures and porous borders not with only Bangladesh, but also with Thailand, China, and India.
This story was reported by the Myanmar Service of Radio Free Asia and written in English by Roseanne Gerin.