Charities in Myanmar strained by soaring death tolls

Charity groups in Myanmar say the number of people dying in the country’s cities, which are facing a coronavirus surge and a shortage of oxygen to treat patients, has been climbing so quickly that they are struggling to keep up with funeral arrangements

Crematoriums in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, are working from morning to night, funeral workers said. A staff member from Yay Way Cemetery, the city’s busiest, said its three crematoriums are in nonstop operation from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Like most workers involved with funeral arrangements, he asked not to be named because of the government’s sensitivity about its handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The military-installed government that seized power in February routinely arrests critics for statements it considers either fake news or disturbing public order.

The exact number of cremations and burials held each day has not been announced by city officials, but charity officials and unofficial estimates on social media say more than 100 bodies have been brought every day to Yay Way Cemetery recently, with more than 200 on Wednesday. The city’s other cemeteries also report higher than the usual numbers.

The figures are higher than had been seen before the latest virus surge, and could suggest that the official death toll for COVID-19 cases is an undercount.

Only in recent weeks, as testing and reporting of COVID-19 cases has started recovering, has it become clear that a third wave of the virus beginning in mid-May was pushing case and death numbers rapidly higher.

Even finding enough ambulances to carry the dead to Yangon’s cemeteries has has become difficult, said several charity workers, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Even bodies from yesterday could not be delivered by ambulance until this afternoon. Finding an ambulance is also very difficult. The death toll is rising by about 10 a day,” said Ba Shwe, a veteran charity worker who was willing to be quoted by name. He has worked with the groups that arrange funerals and also helps supervise a quarantine center.

A worker for a charity organization that works in Yangon’s North Okkalapa neighborhood said that with seven ambulance drivers they were able to carry 50 bodies each day. In some cases, when they have not been able to transport all the bodies they have, they have had to hand them over for another charity group to handle, said the worker, who asked that neither he nor his organization be named.

The privately funded charity organizations do not handle the bodies of people certified as having died from COVID-19, because that is restricted to workers for the city government.

But they say many of the dead they handle were people whose oxygen supplies had run out. In many cases, people have been taking oxygen because they exhibited COVID-19 symptoms. For the past week, there have been queues in cities in town for oxygen and equipment such as canisters, both of which are in short supply.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday announced 7,083 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 208,357 since the pandemic began, and 145 new deaths, making a total of 4,181.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said Wednesday that the situation posed a threat of “a significant loss of life” unless the international community provided emergency assistance.

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Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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