Christopher J. Walker (pseudonym) describes the devastating combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-fourth 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.
That thumping sound | July 1, 2021
I sit on my front balcony sipping my early morning coffee. This is when I usually begin to plan my day. But today I’m having trouble focusing, and my heart isn’t in it. As I sit here, I cannot avoid the sounds of coughing emanating from adjacent apartments.
May, my roommate, is stirring. She’s been ill for several days with a high fever, sore throat, loss of smell, and has at times had difficulty breathing. Now she breaks into an otherworldly cough, more of a raspy thumping than a typical cough.
The only planning on my mind is what to do if her condition worsens. But I come up empty. Whether I’ll be able to buy any oxygen, if necessary, is just a roll of the dice. Hospitals, clinics and quarantine centres are full. A nearby religious facility is operating an underground clinic that is, no doubt, already over capacity. A couple of days ago I was able to persuade a doctor to make a house call. He gave May a prescription for a number of medicines, but I have no idea what effect they will have, if any.
May’s fever is climbing and now she’s moaning. By some means of self-deception, I thought for certain that she would awaken this morning feeling better. That has turned out not to be the case. Next door to us I hear the coughs of our local volunteer security leader.
People are angry. What they need is oxygen, but yesterday a military spokesman announced that to keep the virus at bay everyone should, throughout the day, chant Buddhist scriptures. I will have to check whether chanting is on the list of approved vaccines, but somehow I doubt it. As for the non-Buddhist ethnic minorities that the Tatmadaw has tried for years to eradicate, I suppose they’re out of luck unless they’re able to learn the Pali language in a hurry.
I notice that many of the street vendors are absent. Eerie. I gaze at the apartments across the way and am able to see clearly into the front rooms of 20 or 30 of them. With the exception of two apartments, I can detect no signs of life—other than the thumping sound of coughing.
May is quiet now, but I feel that I have to check whether—I cannot believe I am doing this—she is still breathing.
Good. Sleep, sleep.
A list of firsts | July 3, 2021Embed from Getty Images
For five days now May has lain in bed with COVID-19 and, over the past 48 hours, her condition has steadily deteriorated. Again this morning I awoke having to do something that I would never have imagined. I leaned over and fearfully examined her, but there it was: her chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly. She was still breathing. She had survived another night. I bent further and felt her forehead. It was hot. During the night her fever had spiked once more, but she continued to sleep.
For about two weeks our family of friends has been fighting the virus, and I’m the only one who’s been spared—so far.
Although having to check regularly whether May is still breathing has been a first, it’s on a growing list of firsts that I have reluctantly accumulated since the day of the coup, five months ago.
Never could I have imagined the terror of sitting behind two steel entrance gates and the solid wooden door of my apartment, writing what is now dangerous and forbidden, knowing that any minute soldiers could crash through those gates, and wondering whether I’ll have enough time to hide, sanitize or destroy all my electronic devices and notes before they burst through the door.
Never before would I have given a thought to the dread I now face lying down in bed after another exhausting day, not wanting to fall asleep for fear of soldiers pounding at that same door in the middle of the night.
Never would I have dreamed that I would have to crawl on my hands and knees through my apartment to escape the bullets indiscriminately fired by soldiers in the street. Never did I have any idea what it would be like to have three rounds cut through the air a few centimetres in front of me, and be too numb to drop to the safety of the floor.
I could not have foreseen the terror visited upon May as she lay hidden behind the counter of a cellphone shop as soldiers, who had arrived without warning in our quarter, cursed and swore, hurled stun grenades, and randomly fired their rifles—when all she could do was frantically text me as she furtively watched their boots tramping by directly in front of her.
But there has been another first that in some ways has been more profound, more debilitating, leaving anguish and despair in its wake. While such brutality was occurring, while tens of thousands of Burmese were experiencing their own firsts, far worse than ours, never did I think it remotely possible that most countries in the world community would look on disapprovingly and merely wring their hands. But today I understand, and in large part have come to accept, that that’s the way it is. Nonetheless, it’s a very bitter pill to swallow; it says much about political calculations and the limits of empathy.
Today, all those horrors have receded into the background, overtaken by another just as callous, just as ruthless: the coronavirus. In the first week of this latest wave, it has killed 18 people in our small ward, but I have no idea how many of our neighbours have died in the past few days because there are too many other issues that need attention besides maintaining a body count. People are dying for lack of bottled oxygen, despite a statement by the commander of the military claiming there is plenty. If there is, we haven’t been able to locate any.
The hospitals, clinics and quarantine centres are full. The generals have basically admitted that the situation is beyond the scope of their negligible expertise. They have gone so far as to request donations from the citizens. After all the arrests, torture and murder that they have perpetrated, it is confounding how they can conceive of asking. People are rising up and trying to take care of one another, despite the fact that they can be imprisoned for doing so. The coup leaders are so inept that they advised in the government newspaper that people should stay home and chant Buddhist scriptures to ward off the virus. We thank them for their wholesome suggestion, but right now people would prefer a cylinder of oxygen, some medicine and food. Either that or money with which to purchase them.
Amateur medics | July 6, 2021
It’s 7 in the evening. For the entire day I’ve been trying to find oxygen for an elderly neighbour. Since yesterday, his blood oxygen level has been up and down, anywhere between 79 and 97. I’ve been unable to get my doctor to come to his apartment, but he helps over the phone when he can. Not surprisingly, his line has been engaged for most of the day.
I finally managed to purchase a bottle of oxygen, but no one seems to know how long it will last. It might be woefully insufficient, perhaps good for only a few hours. I’m told that it’s best to avoid giving patients supplemental oxygen until it’s absolutely necessary, because once they start it becomes difficult to take them off. I’ve also been advised to change the patient’s position every now and then, so from time to time we’ve been turning the old fellow onto his stomach, while having him inhale hot water vapour to break up the congestion in his lungs.
As if to mock us, the outdoor loudspeakers that are strategically placed throughout our quarter have begun to broadcast the chanting of monks as protection against the coronavirus. Although good Buddhists, most people want oxygen—not incantations.
Meanwhile, my roommate May, who has been ill for days with COVID-19, is having trouble breathing. She’s been plagued by a bad cough and now feels as though her lungs are constricted. Where is a doctor when we need one?
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.