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Two years on from the military coup, we must step up support for Myanmar’s persecuted health workers

(Alamy)

4 min read

Today marks the second anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. Over the past 730 days, the citizens of Myanmar have faced increasing brutality at the hands of the junta.

The early days of democracy have been superseded by autocracy, punctuated by the most serious human rights violations; including forced displacement, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and extra-judicial killings, which may amount to crimes against humanity.

While the eyes of the world have refocussed elsewhere, attacks on civilians have continued and worsened. Multiple military bombardments on schools and hospitals have gone unreported in the world’s media, while the government health system has collapsed in its entirety.

To date, 624 healthcare workers remain in arbitrary detention, while at least 55 have been killed

The APPG on Global Health today hosts its third event, with the APPG on Human Rights (PHRG), focusing on the coup’s devastating impact on the health system in Myanmar.

Where doctors and nurses led the initial wave of resistance against the military, they face targeted and violent persecution, driving them away from their communities and into hiding. While many continue to provide care – often beyond their trained roles – in underground clinics as part of an increasingly organised “parallel health system”, they do so at great risk of retribution. To date, 624 healthcare workers remain in arbitrary detention, while at least 55 have been killed.

The impact of the collapse of the healthcare system on children is particularly acute. Childhood immunisation rates have plummeted since 2021, with an estimated 1.9 million children in need of a targeted vaccine catch-up programme. Many international actors providing immunisation support are unable to freely operate in the country, given humanitarian access is often tied to the tacit approval of the junta.

Limited humanitarian access has also resulted in broad regional variance in medical supplies, with the military purposefully withholding limited aid from minority ethnic groups. Discriminatory provision of healthcare services, goods and facilities is strictly prohibited under international law, and this also represents a significant risk for the population, where preventable diseases are allowed to flourish. Previously controlled diseases such as polio, measles and diphtheria are highly likely to resurge, posing a threat to vulnerable groups, neighbouring countries and global reduction targets. Unicef reports an estimated measles vaccination rate of 2 per cent.

This situation is exacerbated by a total lack of accurate data and internet access. Limited international access, alongside internet blackouts and limited satellite connectivity, prevents the timely reporting of disease outbreaks and atrocities committed by the junta. Including those involving healthcare workers, and the latter’s ability to seek treatment guidance and resources, often forcing them to practice beyond the roles they were trained for.

The United Kingdom government has provided modest funding to support such healthcare workers and has shown global leadership in opposing the junta’s brutal rule, through sanctions and at the UN Security Council, but there is a need to now place health and health workers at the centre of all conversations. Integral to greater coordinated international action is a deeper understanding of the situation by partners – recognising the consequences of the targeted persecution of health workers.

The APPGs are therefore asking the UK government to continue and further develop its support for humanitarian access, satellite coverage and greater recognition of the dire status of healthcare and human rights in Myanmar within global forums.

The recent Security Council resolution on Myanmar is a step in the right direction. Now is the time for the international community to recognise the urgent need to take action and avert further preventable suffering. The UK has many tools available to leverage positive progress, including a position of influence at the UN, where the Security Council will be briefed in March on progress on the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus on Myanmar.

The most basic human rights of many of the citizens of Myanmar have already been brutally quashed, and as the violent oppression continues unabated, the global community must prioritise their needs before even more lives are lost. The right to health – and the right to life - must be at the heart of that conversation.

 

Dr Dan Poulter and I've been the Member of Parliament for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich and chair of the APPG on Global Health. Tony Lloyd is the Labour MP for Rochdale.

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