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Badly Needed Doctors In Myanmar Are Being Hunted By Military For Opposing Coup

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Myanmar is in chaos. The February 1 coup and civil disobedience campaign it prompted have left the economy in tatters. Thousands of people have been killed or detained. And now, a devastating third wave of COVID is taking a far bigger toll. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The twin crises, the aftermath of the coup and the delta-fueled third wave, have prompted a grim new joke on social media about the three queues - we have to queue to withdraw money from the ATM; we have to queue to refill oxygen tanks for our loved ones; and we have to queue for our funerals at the cemetery.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) I would describe the current situation as a living hell. First, it was our young people being killed during the military crackdown. Now it's our beloved elders dying of COVID before my eyes. If someone asked me where hell is on a map, I would put my finger on my country.

SULLIVAN: That's Dr. Shway (ph) from Myanmar's second city, Mandalay. That's the name she once used out of fear of retribution by the military. Like many health care professionals, she went underground after the coup, leaving her work at a government hospital to protest the military takeover. Now she treats patients surreptitiously.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) In the past few days, I have been doing online consultation for 30 to 40 patients. Now almost everyone has caught the virus. My mother and her brother are both COVID patients, so I am a caregiver as well as a doctor.

SULLIVAN: The military insists it's doing its best to contain the latest wave, but the long lines of people waiting for oxygen in the streets and the number of those who die each day, she says, shows their lie.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) The military's television broadcasts show hospitals fully staffed with plenty of oxygen, but on the ground, I see government hospitals refusing patients whose oxygen levels are below 50% or 60%. The military are letting people die. They're just killing people in a different way.

SULLIVAN: Late last month, she says, several doctors active in the civil disobedience movement went to make a discreet house call, they thought, for a desperately ill patient. It was a trap set by the military who took them all into custody.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) They are not interested in the health of the people. They just want to maintain their grip on power.

SULLIVAN: Another way to maintain control is by limiting the sale of oxygen for COVID patients being treated at home. She says many are now forced to rely on supplies from charities, and there's almost never enough.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) Even I am waiting for an oxygen concentrator for my parents. The seller told me I would get one on July 20. I am still waiting.

SULLIVAN: The chaos that followed the coup left Myanmar's health care system near collapse, even before the third delta-driven wave. Fewer than 3% of the population has been vaccinated, with a shortage of both testing and vaccines. Thousands of new cases, with hundreds dead each day, has been the norm for more than a week now. Those are the official figures. Health workers like Dr. Shway say the real numbers are much higher.

DR SHWAY: (Through interpreter) We will fight against the COVID pandemic and the military for as long as we're still alive. But I would ask the world, please don't leave us behind. Before it's too late, please help us.

SULLIVAN: Both with the pandemic, she says, and with help removing the military from power.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.