Christopher J. Walker (pseudonym) describes the desperation and urgency in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic amid the military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-fifth installment in an ongoing series, Chronicle of a Coup, comprised of reports written from within Myanmar by Christopher J. Walker (a pseudonym), a longtime resident, which together sketch one person’s first-hand account of the weeks and months following the February 1, 2021, military coup. A selection of his reports will be posted weekly, every Friday. A chronological archive is also available here.
Tea Circle is grateful to Christopher for sharing his personal account of life under military rule in Myanmar. Recognizing that his voice is one of many, we encourage other authors to submit their own accounts.
A desperate situation | July 10, 2021
For several days an old neighbour has been wrestling with COVID-19 and not doing well. At 6 am, as my roommate, May, and I were getting ready to walk to his apartment to check on his condition, his daughter phoned to report that her father had, throughout the night, had trouble breathing. She thought it well past time to put him on oxygen. But contrary to what I was led to believe, she did not know how to operate the flow valve on the oxygen cylinder that I’d loaned them. She could have called us earlier, during the night, but didn’t want to disturb us.
May and I spent a few more minutes preparing things and rushed over to their house. During the previous night we had taken delivery of a much-sought-after, overpriced, black-market, oxygen generator, so we were now faced with a choice between the generator and the oxygen cylinder. None of us was familiar with the use of the cylinder, so I immediately got busy parsing the instructions for the generator.
The situation was hectic. The old man was obviously in desperate shape and we needed to hurry. In the midst of this commotion his daughter looked up at me and I stopped everything. She too had recently tested positive for COVID-19 and had also experienced difficulty breathing overnight. In her empty eyes I saw what I had never seen before: eons of time in a split second, and an infinity of sadness and helplessness. She was silently begging me to do whatever I could because, in trying to assist her father, she had come to some kind of disconsolate dead end.
Grasping at straws, I raced back home, and through the magic of Zoom and with the help of a friend abroad I was soon able to obtain medical advice from two overseas Canadian doctors. They walked me through an analysis of the situation and instructed me when and how to make use of the oxygen. I can never thank them enough for their immediate response to my frantic questions.
When I returned to the old man’s home, I learned that in the short time I had been away a neighbour, who somehow knew how to operate the oxygen generator, had stopped by and hooked him up to it. He didn’t seem much improved, but at least he was breathing more comfortably. Happily, unexpectedly, his daughter also looked better, less despondent.
Throughout the country similar scenes are playing out thousands of times every day. We were unusually fortunate to be in possession of the right equipment and to have received timely advice from two competent doctors. Others here are not nearly so lucky. Finding a local doctor is next to impossible. Because the hospitals are filled past their capacity and the military continues to arrest the doctors who have been on strike, people have been left to care for their sick, at home, unaided.
Where is the compassion? Where is the justice?
The last care provider | July 11, 2021Embed from Getty Images
I awaken and see by the clock next to me that it’s nearly 7:00. My first thought: morning or evening? I am clearly disoriented. Then it comes back to me. Last evening I had been so tired for so many hours, but had valiantly tried to remain awake in case I was needed somewhere. I recall that by about 7 pm I could no longer keep my eyes open and had succumbed to exhaustion—which means that I have been asleep for almost 12 hours.
The six other people in my family of friends all have COVID-19; I’m the last person standing. This must be some kind of cruel cosmic joke, because when it comes to a health crisis I would be the last person out of a thousand that anyone would choose to attend to them. There are reasons, but that’s another story.
As I get myself out of bed my entire body seems to be rebelling in pain. I go first to May to check her breathing. I feel her forehead. Unlike other mornings, a time when her fever typically spiked, today her temperature seems closer to normal. Although I’ve been able to buy an oxygen generator at an exorbitant price, a simple mercury thermometer is impossible to find. For many days she’s also had a persistent and painful cough, but I hear nothing at the moment. Given the deep sleep that I was in, if her cough had been bad during the night, I would have had no idea.
I make a cup of coffee and sit on the balcony outside my front door. All is relatively quiet at this hour, except for occasional coughing emanating from other apartments. My confusion persists as I sip my coffee and contemplate what I need to do next. May begins to cough, but it’s less jagged than in days past. At times it became so painful for her that she tried to resist and contain it as much as possible.
I finish my coffee and head over to the apartment of my old neighbour. I quietly peep inside, and instead of finding him lying on his bed hooked up to oxygen, his granddaughter is dozing there, and the oxygen generator is sitting idle. My first thought is that he had passed away during the night while I was unconscious, but within seconds his daughter appears and lets me know that everything is alright, for now. An underground nurse had come by to give him an injection of Enoxaparin, an anticoagulant, after which his blood oxygen level rose significantly and they were able to take him off the oxygen and move him to another room.
Yesterday I had the great good fortune to get this crucial piece of advice from two distant Canadian doctors. Among their recommendations was to remove the patient from the oxygen generator when his blood oxygen level rose above 90, so that he didn’t become dependent on it. When using an oxygen cylinder, this also helps to preserve the supply. Because his natural oxygen level remained at an almost normal level throughout the night, he was able to manage without supplemental oxygen.
I return a few more times during the day and each time find him sleeping. His respiratory rate seems a little high, but he’s resting peacefully. Unfortunately, May’s condition has deteriorated since this morning and she now seems no better than yesterday. Her blood oxygen level however continues to hover around 95, which is normal. It’s difficult to keep her in bed because she so very much wants to help, but for now I’ve been able to persuade her to stay put. She too is sleeping quietly.
As I assess my contribution, I’m hoping that during this health emergency heaven is helping those who have me as their care provider. I’m OK dealing with the science behind the issues, but everything else remains beyond me.
Oxygen ethics | July 12, 2021
Two days ago my old neighbour, who had already been ill with COVID-19 for several days, was having difficulty breathing. As I wrote recently, we were fortunate to be able to contact an underground doctor who directed us to lay him on his stomach, with boiled water beneath his face to ease his breathing. This simple solution gave him considerable relief. That same night our good fortune dramatically increased when we took delivery of a long-awaited oxygen generator and got him connected, which probably saved his life.
Last evening we were also able to obtain Enoxaparin sodium on the black market, along with an underground nurse to inject it. This anticoagulant medication made an enormous difference, and after about an hour we were able to remove the oxygen tube. We have, comparatively speaking, been very fortunate, but have also come to realize that good fortune comes with responsibility.
Tonight I got a phone call from the location in our quarter where our communal oxygen cylinders are secretly stored. It seems that a couple in the next quarter is in urgent need of oxygen. I’ve been called to ascertain my opinion on giving them the one bottle that we have left. The issue, of course, is that what little oxygen we’ve been able to purchase is supposed to be for use in our quarter. What if we get a call a few hours from now from a neighbour who is also in desperate straits? What do we do then?
It’s certain that the nearby couple needs the oxygen now, and while it’s not unlikely that someone in our quarter will be in need later on, it’s not a sure thing. So, we are left to weigh a sure thing against the possibility of a future need. What do I say? After a minute’s reflection I agree that we should donate what we have to the couple in immediate need. This time around the sure thing won out.
There is an even more difficult decision looming that relates to my personal situation. I have both an oxygen generator that we’ve been using and an almost-full ten-litre oxygen cylinder. Today we did not need either, so they sat untouched in a corner. We could have loaned them to someone else, but how can we predict whether we might need them again? If we give them out, what would happen if we urgently want them back?
How about tomorrow? What will my old friend’s situation be then? What will May’s situation be? Will they need to receive oxygen? I shall have to make a decision early tomorrow morning because, after giving away our one communal cylinder, there is now no bottled oxygen left in our quarter except for mine. And with the new military rules in place prohibiting oxygen manufacturers from selling to anyone but hospitals, the likelihood of getting more soon is dim. Come morning, as painful as it is, I know what my choice will be.
Christopher J Walker (pseudonym) has called Myanmar home for a number of years. He thanks his friend and editor Mathieu Lukas for his assistance in preparing these reports for safe and timely publication.