The deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Myanmar calls for urgent international action
Today marks the first anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. In the past year, a fledgling democracy has descended into chaos with the army committing violence against civilians, human rights abuses, and armed rebels now fighting the regime in several parts of the country.
The APPG on Global Health is focused on health and terrible toll that the violence, poverty and an uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 has taken on the population. This, of course, is only part of the humanitarian crisis that is developing in the country.
Health workers are very much at the centre of events. Doctors and nurses led many of the first street protests against the coup in what has been termed the “white coat revolution” and have played leading roles in the civil disobedience movement.
Health workers have subsequently been targeted by the military with many now in hiding away from their homes; their freedoms and lives at risk. They have shown immense bravery, continuing to practice in secret, providing lifelines for communities who have been turned away by government hospitals and have no access to healthcare. At the latest count, 286 health workers have been arrested, 128 health facilities have been attacked and 30 health workers have lost their lives in the past 12 months.
Myanmar clinicians are desperate to see a humanitarian corridor opened up to enable them to receive vital supplies and work safely in their own country
There have traditionally been many links between health workers in the UK and Myanmar; UK health workers are providing a great deal of support to their colleagues in the country. These have been maintained over the past ten months with the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET) bringing together UK health professionals and the diaspora community to provide much needed online medical education, training and consultation.
Many Myanmar clinicians are working in unfamiliar and poor facilities and are dealing with cases outside their previous experience. This is particularly true of nurses on whom much of the health system is now reliant.
UK and diaspora clinicians are making themselves available through the internet – when it is working – to offer advice, consultation and training for Myanmar’s clinicians and over 3000 have so far received training in this way. Several Medical Royal Colleges are playing leading roles and many members of the diaspora have drawn on their experience in the NHS to train colleagues back home.
The UK government has provided some financial support for this activity and over 180 Myanmar doctors have been found employment in the NHS thanks to THET working with the Department of Health and Social Care – contributing to our health service rather than returning to Myanmar to face almost certain persecution. This is a very effective and cost-effective way to provide immediate local support and needs to be scaled up.
In addition, Myanmar clinicians are desperate to see a humanitarian corridor opened up to enable them to receive vital supplies and work safely in their own country – together, of course, with funding to increase the supply of medicines and equipment and an end to the human rights abuses.
This is far more than a health crisis, of course, and the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has called for an urgent “unified international and regional response”, to prevent catastrophe in the heart of South-East Asia.
Our APPG is holding a meeting for parliamentarians and clinicians today, the first anniversary of the coup, at which they will hear from the spokesperson of the national unity government, which is leading the political opposition to the coup, as well as from Myanmar clinicians.
The APPG will ask the UK government to continue and develop its support for this valuable work in health and to advocate for a humanitarian corridor to be opened at the UN and in other global forums.
The UK also has a bigger role to play in working with international partners towards a return to peace internally and a democratic future for Myanmar. The UK can and should display global leadership through strengthening sanctions against all those in every country who oppress their civilian populations and commit serious human rights violations. It can also use all the tools available in Myanmar, including UK Aid, to support local health and others who are putting their lives at risk to help their fellow citizens in the name of democracy, many of whom look to the UK both for the quality of our medical education, and our democratic institutions.
Dr Dan Poulter is the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich. Lord Crisp is a crossbench peer. They are chair and co-chair of the APPG on Global Health.
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