EHC: Govt’s ‘No One Left Behind’ COVID-19 Prevention Policy Doesn’t Work in Practice

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Since the Burmese President Win Myint signed off on the formation a coordination committee on April 27 to work with ethnic health providers to fight COVID-19, health workers on the ground have pointed out the lack of structure in the initiative. A clear mandate is needed for it to carry out effective implementation, they have said.

The Ethnic Health Committee (EHC) released a statement last week responding to the formation of the committee and urging the government create a further mechanism through which state and regional health departments could work with local ethnic armed organizations’ (EAOs) medical units.

The EHC also demanded that the Burma Army stop all military offensives in ethnic regions in order to focus on fighting the pandemic, and called on donors to provide financial assistance directly to ethnic health teams. If funds are channeled through the central government, it will not reach them, ethnic health specialists pointed out.

NMG spoke with Saw Nay Htoo, joint secretary of the EHC and director of the Burma Medical Association, to elaborate on what is needed for genuine partnership between the government’s health departments and EAO medical teams.

The government’s COVID-19 coordination committee and EAOs are going to work together for COVID-19 prevention. What kind of impact do you think will come from this?

Ethnic health teams are working for COVID-19 prevention in ethnic regions. I think this is a kind of recognition of these ethnic medic teams. We welcome this approach. When we look at the structure of the government’s COVID-19 coordination committee, there are only four members. In practice, this will create difficulties in implementation, because the Burma Army has restricted activities for COVID-19 prevention carried out by EAOs’ medic teams in ethnic regions.

According to the government’s policy, nobody will be left behind in the process of virus prevention. What is your assessment of this?

I think, their “No One Left Behind” policy is just a beautiful-sounding phrase. If they want to implement this policy, they must work hard in practice. When we look at Rakhine, Chin, Shan and Karen states, clashes frequently occur. Clashes are intensifying in Rakhine State. Even though they drew up a “No One Left Behind” policy, it doesn’t work on the ground. In my opinion, it’s just a policy. In practice, it will take time to implement it on the ground. There will be many challenges and unsolvable things that come up when implement the policy in practice.

You said that the Burma Army has launched military offensives, threatened and restricted EAOs while they are implementing COVID-19 prevention activities. Why did you highlight this?

The COVID-19 is pandemic. Its effects go across the world. Therefore, the world needs to work together on it. The UN has already demanded the easing of all hostilities and violence amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For our country, we need to make ceasefire and stop military offensives in ethnic regions. If there is no ceasefire, it’s impossible to work together for COVID-19 prevention even though we are talking about COVID-19 prevention. It’s important to stop the offensives in ethnic regions. If they cannot stop military offensives and violence, it doesn’t matter committee or organization is formed: it’s impossible to work together to fight COVID-19.

What is the most recent update about COVID-19 prevention in Karen State?

The KNU released a statement. The KNU already formed central, district and township COVID-19 response committees in their respective regions. In Thaton District, the Burma Army tried to remove medical screening points set up by the KNU. Even though government drew up a “No One Left Behind” policy, in practice, the government’s army has restricted, threatened and put pressure on EAOs on the ground. I want to say that this should not have happened.

You have said that international donors’ funds go directly to the central government. The virus can also spread in ethnic regions. Can you explain your main demands for international donors?

As we know, international donors have directly provided funds to the central government. There is very little funding flowing into ethnic regions. I think that COVID-19 prevention will be effective if ethnic health teams can get funds directly. In our country, there are unilateral funding and bilateral funding systems. What we have seen is that the funds do not directly go to ethnic organizations. It directly provides funds to the government’s health department. Ethnic health organizations get a little assistance, but it’s not direct assistance. For example, an INGO gets funds and delivers health services in ethnic regions. The fund is going to the ethnic region through an organizational medium. It’s not direct funding to ethnic health teams. In this time of the pandemic, international donors need to provide direct funds to ethnic health teams which have directly provided health services to ethnic people in ethnic regions. I think if the international community can directly provide both financial and technical assistance to ethnic health teams, it will be effective in working for COVID-19 prevention.

What do you want to demand from the government?

We need mutual understanding if we want implementation on the ground. We need mutual respect and a mechanism for the government’s health departments and EAOs’ health teams work together. To implement it, I think, we will need a coordination mechanism for working together between the states’ and regions’ health departments and the ethnic health departments. It is impossible to implement if the sound of gunshots continues to occur in ethnic regions. It is really important to stop the war in the country. Then we can pay attention to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. In the next steps, we can restore peace in the country.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.