On Aug. 16, Myanmar’s health ministry announced the country’s first locally transmitted COVID-19 case in a month in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. By Sept. 1, the number of confirmed cases across the state had risen to 393, while as of Sept. 3, the whole country has recorded 1,111 cases since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Myanmar has reported only six deaths from COVID-19 so far, but its limited health infrastructure raises concerns about its potential ability to control a larger outbreak. Three years ago, a brutal military campaign pushed more than 700,000 members of the Rohingya Muslim minority to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Since late 2018, the state has faced another crisis: the escalating conflict between the rebel Arakan Army, which seeks autonomy for Rakhine, and Myanmar’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw.
By July, the violence—which has spread to a neighboring state, Chin—had displaced nearly 200,000 people, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, an organization monitoring the conflict. The pandemic has not slowed the fighting: The Rakhine state government reported that nearly 82,000 people were displaced between March 16 and July 6.
Coronavirus cases are now rising alongside civilian casualties and displacement, and Rakhine state’s health infrastructure could easily become overwhelmed. The state government has limited access for humanitarian organizations to some conflict-affected populations since early 2019. And for more than a year, the national government has blocked high-speed internet in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin states—restricting access to information for more than 1 million people.
In response to the Rakhine outbreak, the Myanmar government has imposed strict prevention and control measures and sent doctors to Sittwe. But in the context of the ongoing conflict, the response may fall short of what is needed to avert a public health disaster.