YANGON: The likelihood of undetected COVID-19 cases imported by a recent wave of returning Myanmar workers from Thailand – at least 32,000 of them – via a shared land border is “dangerously high”, a Myanmar health official told CNA on Monday (Mar 30).
The remarks came a day after Myanmar rolled out its strictest travel restrictions, banning international commercial flights from landing at all its airports in a bid to stop the coronavirus from being imported.
Myanmar also reported four new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total in the country to 14.
Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports permanent secretary Thar Tun Kyaw said COVID-19 cases could have slipped in through the land borders before Mar 23 - the day Myanmar confirmed its first two positive cases.
“The authorities have since started tracking and checking all returning Myanmar nationals from Thailand, via the borders,” Dr Thar Tun Kyaw said.
“But before Mar 23, at least 32,000 people had come in through the Thai-Myanmar land border and they were not checked,” he said.
“Now, they are already in the country and it’s a very dangerous situation because these people could potentially be COVID-19 carriers.”
On Mar 21, Thailand ordered one of two friendship bridges, which linked Thailand’s Mae Sot and Myanmar’s Kayin State, to be closed until further notice.
The second friendship bridge was slated to close days later on Mar 24.
However, a wave of returning Myanmar workers since Mar 21 on the second bridge forced authorities on both sides to keep the land border open.
“For those entering via land borders, they’re closely packed and they travel on foot, so even if only one person carried COVID-19, there’s a very high chance it could spread while they’re at the border.
“And now that they’ve made it into Myanmar, it’s a dangerous situation,” Dr Thar Tun Kyaw said.
Those returning from the land borders have been told by the authorities to be home-quarantined for 14 days.
“Enforcement is absolutely essential now because even though we have a contact tracing system and implemented community quarantine, we must enforce it and make sure people abide by the law,” Dr Thar Tun Kyaw said.
But enforcement is an issue.
For now, Dr Thar Tun Kyaw said the authorities are working closely with the police, local government officials as well as non-profit organisations to help them enforce quarantine measures.
From Mar 31, all commercial airlines – apart from those delivering relief supplies – will not be allowed to land at Myanmar’s international airports in Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay until Apr 13.
Diplomats and UN officials working in Myanmar will be allowed entry, although they must prove they do not have COVID-19 before they can board a plane bound for Myanmar.
Dr Thar Tun Kyaw, who is also a medical doctor by training, said: “From a healthcare point of view, Myanmar should stop people – not just flight passengers – from coming into the country so that we can control the virus more effectively.”
Another potential concern is Myanmar’s upcoming Water Festival and Burmese New Year from Apr 13 to Apr 18.
Even before Myanmar confirmed positive COVID-19 cases, Thingyan – or the water festival – had been banned.
But the Thingyan holiday is also traditionally a time for thousands, if not millions of workers to go back to their hometown.
This could be a concern as it would mean large crowds gathering in places like bus depots, train stations and domestic airports, potentially spreading COVID-19 to more places.
Dr Thar Tun Kyaw cited a recent COVID-19 case, a 44-year-old man who returned from Thailand via the friendship bridge on Mar 23.
The man later travelled from Myawady, Kayin State to Yangon on Mar 26, where he was found to be COVID-19 positive.
“For that patient, he had come across at least 500 people based on his travel route. This is a really difficult – a heavy-duty - task for the authorities to take on, based on the contact tracing effort to get in touch with everyone,” Dr Thar Tun Kyaw said.
Dr Thar Tun Kyaw also said Myanmar’s maximum quarantine capacity across the country – including sites like hotels, community facilities and hospitals – is at up to 60,000.
Currently, around 470 people are under quarantine across the country.
Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has come out to assure Myanmar citizens that the authorities are doing all they can to fight the virus.
Since the confirmed cases were announced, various public places across the country have been disinfected.
The authorities have also been reminding the Myanmar population to be mindful of their personal hygiene.