Christopher J. Walker (pseudonym) describes the continuing desperation and urgency in confronting COVID-19 and the military repression in Myanmar.
Editor’s Note: This post is the twenty-sixth 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.
The gates of hell | July 15, 2021
Today has been a day like no other. My doctor, who lived next door, a very sweet man whom I have counted on for many years, died this morning from COVID-19. He was fortunate to have been treated with oxygen but succumbed anyway. Down the hallway, a man was found dead in his apartment; he died two days ago but no one knew about it. And a few hours ago, I saw two young men walking down the street dressed in personal protective equipment, on their way to decontaminate a nearby apartment where someone else had died. Escorting them was a soldier with his rifle at the ready. Why the soldier was needed remains a mystery.
So many people are in a desperate condition, and so little can be done for them. Try as we might, we cannot get the oxygen that so many need. Our quarter’s top administrative officer announced this morning that he now had oxygen in cylinders, the first time since the beginning of this tragedy that any has been available locally for the residents. We soon found out that what he had was insufficient for even one day.
For the past three days, we have not needed to use the precious oxygen generator that initially kept my old neighbour alive. Instead, we have been injecting him with Enoxaparin sodium, an anti-coagulant that seems to be helping him more than the oxygen. Having an idle oxygen generator in the midst of such great need was not sitting well with us, but we had no way of knowing if we could find more Enoxaparin, since only two ampules, a two-day supply, remained.
We debated whether we should keep the generator or loan it to someone in greater need. It was a painfully difficult decision to make, but in the end, we all agreed to take a chance and let someone else use it. Shortly afterward, a friend called to say that a woman in his apartment building had a dangerously low blood oxygen level of 45. Within minutes, our generator was in a car and on its way. Two hours later he called again to report that after being connected to the generator, the woman’s oxygen level had risen to 70, still well below the normal 95, but nonetheless, a great improvement.
I was recently on the phone with two local embassy contacts to see whether they could help us with medical supplies. I explained the deplorable situation in our quarter, but they could only commiserate and offer their sympathies. The information they had led them to believe that the situation was going to get much worse and many, many more people would die. Apparently then, we are not yet in the depths of hell; we have only arrived at the gates.
Signature, please | July 19, 2021
Last night before curfew, I took a walk to the place where our meagre stash of communal oxygen tanks and related supplies is stored. It’s necessary to keep them hidden from the military for fear of confiscation, arrest, or, more likely, both. When I arrived, the half dozen people keeping watch were in a celebratory mood because after searching all day they were able to obtain a single oxygen cylinder. The guy who located it was being lauded as a hero. Until it arrived, all we had were five empty cylinders, which these days are next to impossible to have refilled. I well understood their reason for jubilation.
However, no sooner did the oxygen come in, then it went out to someone in need, and now again, we were left with nothing. We discussed how we might be able to get more the next day, but there was little optimism. With the hospitals and quarantine centres at or above capacity, the only option remaining for people is home care, even in the most dire circumstances.
The latest law promulgated by the military junta is nothing but a sentence of death by asphyxiation. Now, before you are permitted to purchase a cylinder of oxygen, you must find a doctor willing to come to your home, do an examination, and certify that a patient is in critical need of oxygen. However, most doctors have been in hiding for months, targeted for arrest by the military for being on strike or for their involvement in the civil disobedience movement. So, you have to find a doctor working underground who is willing to potentially be exposed by signing a certification form. While some doctors are still working above ground, they are very, very few. This is the first obstacle.
If you have somehow acquired the proper medical certification, the next requirement is the written endorsement of your quarter’s military-appointed administrator. No small hurdle! First, you have to find him. Because most of these new administrators serve primarily as informers for the military, they are being targeted for execution by the People’s Defence Forces and, like the doctors and nurses, are also, ironically, in hiding. To avoid being killed, they vary their routines and hours of work, so who knows where they are at any given time.
If by some great good fortune you are able to find the administrator and persuade him to provide the necessary signature, then you next have to collect a similar written approval from the general in charge of the township. Locating him is no different than searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
If by some minor miracle you have been able to successfully navigate each of these steps, with permission in hand you will now have legally acquired the privilege of standing for days in an interminably long queue for a single cylinder of oxygen.
Sadly, by the time this tedious and needlessly cruel exercise has played out, the likelihood of the patient still being alive will have become painfully remote. The fact of the matter is that exceedingly few people are going to embark upon this ridiculous process, because they have zero trust in the military and refuse at all costs to co-operate with them.
However, two other possibilities can be pursued. The first is the black market. Myanmar has a long history of subjugation by brutal military regimes, and a necessary strategy in coping with them has been the development of a vibrant underground economy. Without it, there is actually little hope of survival. Today the black market for oxygen is in its infancy, but it will not be long before an entire clandestine industry comes into being. I have the utmost respect for the ingenuity and resourcefulness by which Burmese people are able to circumvent the multitude of malicious government controls.
There remains one last option, but I doubt that it will receive the approval of the World Health Organization. A few days ago, after acknowledging their utter inability to curb COVID-19, the junta came up with a novel way to guard against the coronavirus: they recommend that people recite Buddhist scriptures at home. While it’s probably the best solution they can come up with, it might not work too well for the many non-Buddhist Burmese.
Caution to the wind | July 21, 2021Embed from Getty Images
Now 9 pm. For everyone in our quarter, it’s been a tough day. Throughout much of it, we’ve been trying to find oxygen, but have little to show for our efforts, and the oxygen that we’ve been able to get is woefully inadequate. Many people urgently need medical care, but the situation changes so rapidly that we’re unable to keep track of what supplies might be available and where. And the lack of any meaningful response from the military is driving people over the edge.
Due to the rapid advance of COVID-19, about two weeks ago we suspended the banging of pots and pans. Instead of being on the lookout for approaching soldiers as we are banging away, our neighbourhood volunteer security personnel are either caring for sick family members or out trying to round up any oxygen, flow metres, medical equipment, or supplies that they can find. And tonight for the first time, our quarter’s military administrator ordered that the recorded chanting of Buddhist monks be broadcast over the outdoor loudspeakers. It seems that this might have been the last straw for the angry residents.
Seconds later another, and then another, and before long it seemed that everyone was banging away. So gratifying was the din that it took me back to the first days of the coup when nearly every resident in our quarter joined in. So loud was it that even though our apartment is only a short distance from one of the loudspeakers, we could no longer hear the chanting. After a few minutes, the feed to the speakers was either shut off or cut.
And then, as in former times, people began singing the most popular songs of protest, followed by the riskiest ruckus of all: the chanting of anti-coup slogans—a wonderfully inspirational clamour! Instead of the measured chanting of monks, it was the fervent protest of the people, a chanting that strengthened and energized everyone. It was an eloquent expression of pent-up anger and exasperation, and all of it at great risk because no volunteer security detail had been organized to warn of approaching soldiers. For months the generals have tried to silence us, but they’ve been largely unsuccessful.
Still, there’s always a price to pay for defying the law against banging on pots and pans. Sure enough, 15 minutes after things quietened down the sound of stun grenades echoed from a nearby quarter as soldiers began to move in. In an attempt to intimidate and silence people they use a range of tactics, from cursing, hurling bricks through windows, and damaging cars, to tossing stun grenades, randomly arresting people, and indiscriminate shooting. Tonight people have out of frustration, obviously thrown caution to the wind. Let the soldiers come.
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.