More than 20 UN agencies in Myanmar have come together to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and staff are putting their lives on the line to support the Organization’s efforts to protect lives and boost livelihoods.
“I was concerned that I might get infected. Everyone was afraid,” says 32-year-old World Health Organization (WHO) data collector Myat Mon Yee.
Since March, Ms. Mon Yee, a computer studies graduate from South Dagon Township in Yangon, has been working at the South Okkalapa Hospital in the former capital. The hospital was planned as the Women’s and Children's Hospital but has been transformed into a COVID-19 treatment centre.
Not surprisingly, she was initially quite concerned about working with an infectious disease about which very little was known, except that it was killing people and making others very sick: front line health workers throughout the world have been contracting COVID-19 at a higher rate than almost any other group, except perhaps the elderly. Many doctors, nurses and administrative staff have died.
“But I thought about other health personnel and charity workers who were willing to work, and even volunteer, and that took some of my fear away”, she continues. “And when I started work, I found that the facilities were very well taken care of, which allayed my fears.”
‘Data is the light at the end of the tunnel’
For a national health emergency plan to be effective, Government and health workers must have highly reliable data,which means staff such Ms. Mon Yee play a crucial role.
“Data is the light at the end of the tunnel”, says Dr Fabio Caldas de Mesquita, who heads up the WHO’s HIV, Viral Hepatitis and TB teams in Myanmar. “We need to know how many people are being treated and how many beds are available for new patients; a little about the patients’ gender, age, and the state of their illness, and of course where they live and who they have been meeting; and we need to know how many tests are being done, and how many test kits remain available.”
“We need to know what drugs are being used by the patient; what protective equipment is needed for health care staff; and how many staff are working on treatment and response: these may just seem like numbers, but they are key to decision-making during the crisis,” says Dr de Mesquita.
‘You need to be brave’
In February it quickly became apparent that the Ministry of Health and Sports did not have enough people to undertake this technical role, so WHO hired three people willing to run the risks associated with hospital work, including Ms. Mon Yee.
"You need to be brave to work in infectious diseases,” says Dr de Mesquita. “Many applicants for jobs in Myanmar refused the work when they discovered they were going to be working on COVID-19 at hospitals. It was the same in 1987 when I began working with HIV and we didn’t know exactly how it infected people."
At work, Ms. Mon Yee wears a mask and face shield, carries sanitizer, and frequently washes her hands. She is provided with protective clothing, including a cap and gown, and the facilities are regularly disinfected.
But she also has to take precautions when she returns home, which she shares with her 95 year old grandmother, her 70 year old mother, her sister, and niece. “When I get home, I don’t talk to anyone. I immediately shower and soak my clothes in soapy water. I spray disinfectant on all my things, and I stay isolated for an hour”.
Preparing for the second wave
Despite her precautions, Ms. Mon Yee is very aware that there is no cure for COVID-19, and is concerned about a second wave hitting Myanmar.
“The recent increases in the infection rates have made me very anxious”, she says. “I am happy to be able to contribute to the Government and WHO’s response, and am grateful for this opportunity, but I worry about other health workers, who are becoming fatigued.
“We just hope the patients will recover quickly from COVID: I want the pandemic to be over soon, and for everyone to be safe.”
WHO in Myanmar
- WHO has been working with epidemics and infectious diseases in Myanmar for many years, helping to treat HIV-Aids, Viral Hepatitis, Tuberculosis, Malaria, and delivering vaccines of preventable diseases, and running health initiatives.
- At the beginning of 2020, WHO had about 200 staff working in all regions of Myanmar, and almost all of them were working on different types of infectious diseases. These people are paid and supervised by the WHO but are seconded to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoSH).
- Several UN agencies in Myanmar, including WHO and partners, have worked closely with MoSH since the coronavirus outbreak was first reported in China in late December 2019, to keep citizens safe from the virus.