In Myanmar’s prisons, detainees caught between pandemic and coup

Bird’s eye view of Insein Prison
Bird’s eye view of Insein Prison

As COVID-19 cases surge in Myanmar, advocates and experts are warning of the potential of a disastrous third wave further exacerbated by the military junta’s continued detention of democracy activists and a collapsing healthcare system.

Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, warned that the mass detentions of democracy activists was becoming “dangerous for society” and that prisons were becoming the sites for spreading communicable diseases.

“The illegal military does not have the capacity to manage the prisons well. I have a great concern for prisoners for their lives. In addition, prisons are so crowded and prisoners do not get enough nutrition and medicine,” Bo Kyi told Coconuts Yangon.

There’s a very high likelihood of transmission during their time incarcerated due to spatial proximity and overall neglect for their individual health and rights, and frequent exposure to prison staff who are freely traveling between the general public and prison confines,” Sandra Mon, senior epidemiology researcher at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said.

Over on social media, citizens are warning that COVID-19 is already in Myanmar’s prisons.

Concerns grew further on June 30, the Myanmar Department of Prisons released more than 2,000 political prisoners who were held in crowded rooms without masks in poor sanitary conditions where social distancing and isolation were all but impossible.

There is extensive reporting and documentation of the explosive spread of COVID-19 in prisons around the world.

“People who live in correctional settings are at a high risk of exposure to COVID-19. In fact, a majority of the largest, single-site outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic have been in jails and prisons,” the COVID Prison Project wrote on their website.

On September 15, 2020, Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, spoke about the impossibility of social distancing in closed-door spaces like prisons and the potential impacts of mass arrests in the context of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

“People were loaded onto crowded buses from protests. They had to go through processing when they got there. All of that has to be done with appropriate social distancing and hygiene, [but] it’s very hard to stay six feet away from people when you are being arrested, handcuffed, and forced into a bus,” Beyrer said.

From a public health perspective, Beyrer called the mass arrests and detentions in crowded spaces “totally unacceptable.”

“We’re concerned about all of the people. We’re concerned about the guards, the staff. A very significant proportion of the people who work in prisons are contract hires and low-income workers who are also being exposed. We’re also concerned about their families and other people that they live with. This affects a much wider group of people than just those who are detained,” he said.

Prison Conditions in Myanmar

Historically in Myanmar’s 93 prisons and labor camps, inmates deal with poor hygienic conditions, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to medical supplies and staff, routine abuse, torture, and rampant overcrowding.

According to a 2018 report by the AAPPB on overcrowding, there are 92,000 people behind bars while prison capacity is 66,000, putting prison occupancy nationwide at 139 percent. A 2017 investigation by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission of 30 prisons revealed that 50,000 prisoners are living in quarters meant for 31,500 prisoners.

In February 2018, Yangon’s Insein Prison was holding 12,392 prisoners despite its 5,000 inmate capacity.

According to the same report, there is also a higher rate of preventable and communicable diseases in prison populations such as various strains of influenza, HIV, tuberculosis, and dengue fever.

“Often, prisoner health is looked at as separate to, or less important than the health of other members of the public. However, prisoners are routinely transferred between prisons, released, and in contact with visitors and prison staff who regularly move in and out of prisons,” the AAPPB report stated.

“Standards of cleanliness and health, therefore, are not just a matter for prisoners but an urgent matter of public health,” AAPPB concluded.

Between a coup and a pandemic

Myanmar’s healthcare system has all but collapsed since Feb. 1 due to ongoing attacks by junta security forces on healthcare workers and healthcare facilities, an ongoing civil disobedience movement, and the collapse in trust with the State Administrative Council.

Read more: Get uncomfortable: A quarantine center in Yangon is being criticized for laying out bamboo mats as beds

Prior to the coup, Myanmar acquired 1.5 million doses of the CovidShield vaccine supplied by India to inoculate 750,000 people and a national vaccine roll-out began with healthcare workers and the elderly. Striking healthcare workers have since refused their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in defiance against the military junta.

The military junta also arrested the former head of the national COVID-19 roll-out program and charged her with high treason for working with the National Unity Government. Her husband, 7-year old son, and dog were also arrested.

Yesterday, Myanmar recorded nearly 3,000 new cases and 49 deaths although the true number of cases is believed to be far higher after nationwide testing collapsed due to the military coup.

Sandra Mon warned against fear mongering and said the best strategy now is to encourage social distancing and quarantine for two weeks, and get tested if possible.

“At the end of the day, decarceration, whether en masse or slow trickle, is great because it reduces the risk of transmission at the focal point – Myanmar’s historically violent prison system – and allows for people to take control of their own health needs,” Mon said.

“Despite transmission risks inside prisons, we still want innocent civilians to be released because it frees up space to prevent overcrowding.” 

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