By U Thaung Tun
Humankind today is faced with a tragedy of epic proportions. The current COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the biggest downturn within the global economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a matter of months, we have seen this pandemic evolve from a health crisis to a full-blown social and economic crisis. As global markets teeter on the brink of collapse, and as flows of trade, investment, and people are disrupted, the lives and livelihoods of millions around the globe have been affected. Significant economic pain appears unavoidable.
This pandemic also presents itself as the truest test of political leadership. Different countries have adopted diverse approaches. Some have opted for broad-based measures aimed at combatting COVID-19’s spread, while others have sought to implement more targeted measures.
Regardless of the approach taken, evidence shows that large-scale testing, allowing health officials to identify and quickly quarantine those potentially infected presents the most effective method for limiting COVID-19’s spread. For example, the South Korean “4T” approach of “testing, tracing, tracking and treating” has shown tremendous success in rapidly bringing the disease under control. We have also witnessed the use of technology – with free smartphone apps helping to make populations aware of spikes in infections within their homes and places of work and communicating the vital importance of social-distancing measures via push notifications and public health messaging. Evidence also shows that successful response must involve government communicating quickly and truthfully, educating their people in real-time, and informing them as to how many have been infected and where, while minimizing the potential for stigma and discrimination.
Myanmar has likewise tailored our response to the challenge posed by COVID-19 in keeping with our unique country context. In doing so, we have taken what we call a “whole of nation” approach. From the very beginning, with the formation of the Central Committee for the Prevention, Control and Treatment of COVID-19, chaired by the State Counsellor, the entire nation has rallied against COVID-19.
Together we strive unremittingly to ensure that none is left behind. We have strengthened our nation’s healthcare system while increasing household resilience. We are also ensuring that our businesses, particularly our micro, small and medium-sized enterprises can weather this current storm and plan for the future. As COVID-19 is now well and truly present in Myanmar, our nation’s healthcare system provides us with our first line of defence. Accordingly, the government’s foremost priority continues to be supporting and protecting our nations’ frontline healthcare workers – our new national heroes – ensuring they have access to the resources and capacities required to slow contagion and care for those affected.
We have signed agreements with local suppliers permitting the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks while sourcing key medical products in international markets and called for investments in the manufacture of COVID-19 related technologies using currently vacant state-owned factories. We are likewise scaling up the provision of testing kits, ventilators and other technologies to better support epidemiological tracking and contact tracing. With this week’s delivery of the Cobas 6800 analyser, our National Health Laboratory in Yangon is now capable of conducting over 1,000 tests for the COVID-19 coronavirus each day. Additional testing facilities are also planned for Mandalay Region, Mon and Shan States.
The pandemic has brought about widespread disruptions in economic activity, with notable declines in garment manufacturing and tourism. Accordingly, the government has taken rapid measures to protect our nation’s families and firms including establishing an initial MMK100 billion COVID-19 Recovery Fund, with which to finance low-interest loans to small firms suffering financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our fight against COVID-19 will continue to be successful thanks to the strength, resilience, good-will and cooperation of our people. That is why we have launched a series of measures intended to limit the pandemic’s impact on households and individuals, including the provision of food items together with both unconditional and in-kind cash transfers to those most vulnerable. To alleviate hardships borne by our people, the government launched an electricity tariff exemption for 150 units for all households last month. Yet staying true to our national character of caring and sharing, many of our people instead opted to forgo the privilege, with households diverting savings to community-led anti-COVID-19 efforts.
Through Myanmar’s whole-of-nation approach, our people have and will continue to rise to this new challenge. We have seen social distancing practices being applied in both the hill-top markets of Kalaw and in lowland areas. Technology’s promise has also been harnessed by our nation’s youthful entrepreneurs, with contact tracing apps and creative and innovative public health messages disseminated online and through social media. We have also seen new public-private partnerships emerge from within our health sector, allowing for the construction of new life-saving hospitals and clinics.
Despite the many varied challenges our nation faces, Myanmar is fully committed to taking every possible action to mitigate the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on families and firms. To guide this effort, we shall soon be launching the Myanmar COVID-19 Comprehensive Response Plan (CCRP), which introduces a broad range of actions and policy reforms focused on facilitating a rapid, wide-ranging, and inclusive recovery. And yet, while this Plan represents a roadmap to recovery, a map by definition, is a simplification of the territory it represents. We must be ready to improvise, adapt and overcome. Importantly, policies enacted shall not come at the expense of hard-fought-for fundamental social and economic freedoms now enjoyed in Myanmar. Nor shall our nation’s economic response involve cuts to social services or raising taxes on labour and investment
What we lack by way of resources, we make up for in national spirit!
While the world must come together in the fight against COVID-19, the past offers us no blueprint for the future. If the challenge of COVID-19 is not met in developing countries such as ours, the risk to the rest of the world remains. Bold actions at the country-level must, therefore, be complemented by closer regional and multilateral collaboration, to address both the immediate challenges, and to strengthen health systems and economic recovery in the longer term.
Let this present crisis draw us closer together; let us measure ourselves by our expression of compassion and empathy in the face of hardship, for this crisis too shall surely pass. (U Thaung Tun is Union Minister for Investment and Foreign Economic Relations.)