Myanmar’s Delayed Reaction to the “Foreign Virus”

In mid-March, while much of the world was locking down in an attempt to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar was business as usual. Coronavirus seemed like a distant issue and the sidewalks of Yangon remained full of life. On 16 March, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi gave a televised address to the nation, claiming that, “Until now, no one in our country is infected with COVID-19.”

The government’s response to the pandemic was a baffling mix of denial stoked by nationalism. To explain the country’s surprising immunity, government spokesman U Zaw Htay claimed that, “the lifestyle and diet of Myanmar citizens” were beneficial in fighting the respiratory disease. He added that having a “cash-based society”, without credit cards, would somehow help stem the spread of the illness. This blanket denial from the authorities would have wide-ranging effects in a country ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic or the ensuing economic fallout.

Myanmar’s basic education system is often accused of intentionally limiting the populace’s ability to criticise the government’s narrative on social issues. This has served the ruling military junta for many years, as leaders often harness nationalist sentiment as a way of consolidating power. This was incredibly evident during the ongoing persecution of the ethnic-minority Rohingya, and in today’s case the enemy is the “foreign virus”. 

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