Myanmar’s Covid-19 crisis is spiraling out of control, as the coronavirus spreads among the most marginalized populations, including those in the country’s prisons.
The escalation of politically motivated arrests since the February 1 military coup has corresponded with a surge in infections in the country’s overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, where access to health care is poor.
Over 600 Covid-19 cases have been reported in Myanmar’s prisons. The Ministry of Health estimates there are almost 4000 new infections daily across the country. But due to lack of testing and little information coming forward from a military junta that claims it has the situation under control, the real figures are likely much higher.
On August 8, prisoners held a protest inside Mandalay’s Obo prison after the Covid-19 related death of a pro-democracy activist in custody. Maung Maung Nyein Tun, a 45-year-old doctor who had been detained on June 13 for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement, was initially held in a military interrogation center, then transferred to a police station before being taken to Obo prison despite showing severe symptoms. He later died at Mandalay hospital.
On July 23, a protest erupted at Yangon’s Insein prison due to a worsening coronavirus outbreak there and the death from Covid-19 of Nyan Win, 79, a prominent National League for Democracy member. As of August 9, at least 12 inmates at Insein had died after having been infected with the virus.
According to local media reports, only 600 of the 9000 prisoners at Insein prison have received a vaccine. To quell the rapid spread, officials at Insein, Taungoo, and Myaung Mya prisons have ordered lockdowns. Inmates who show symptoms are quarantined but few are tested or receive adequate medical treatment. Released detainees have told us that few measures are taken to stop the spread of the virus, that masks are insufficient, and sanitary conditions are abysmal. Prison authorities have apparently also not taken any special measures to protect groups at higher risk such as older inmates and those with preexisting medical conditions.
At a minimum, Myanmar’s prison authorities need to carry out widespread testing of inmates, release all prisoners who pose little security risk, and make information on the prevalence of Covid-19 in prisons public. Otherwise, the virus and loss of lives among prisoners will continue unchecked.