Yan Win Soe, founder of the Myanmar Community Health Society (MCHS), knows well the personal tragedies that the third wave of COVID-19 unleashed on the people of Myanmar. “My elder sister got COVID-19 and died due to lack of oxygen at the critical time.”
In June 2021, the COVID-19 Delta variant engulfed Myanmar. The country was already in turmoil following the military coup in February, and the public health system was on the brink of collapse. With medical supply chains at breaking point, the outbreak plunged Myanmar into a full-scale humanitarian crisis. People searched in vain for oxygen and hospital bed spaces for their stricken relatives.
Community Partners International (CPI) mobilized, working hand-in-hand with its network of local partners across Myanmar, to mount a community-based emergency response. Community clinics were transformed into COVID-19 care centers and stocked with medicines and supplies, a network of oxygen concentrator banks was established, and teams of doctors and nurses provided telehealth consultations to COVID-19 patients and their families. Over the next three months, CPI and partners reached more than 900,000 people across Myanmar with COVID-19 care and prevention services.
MCHS was one of the partners working with CPI in the Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, Sagaing, and Yangon regions of Myanmar as part of the oxygen network. When the third wave struck, the organization mobilized 40 volunteers to provide oxygen support for COVID-19 patients.
“The COVID-19 crisis escalated very quickly here,” Yan Win Soe explains. “The peak time was the most dangerous. We couldn’t buy an oxygen concentrator even if we had the money. People couldn’t access hospitals and they were struggling to find oxygen. Fortunately, Community Partners International was able to provide us with oxygen concentrators and other support.”
“When we started, it was difficult for us to deliver the oxygen concentrators and cylinders to patients' homes. The entrance and exit points of townships were often closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and the deteriorating security situation. Our volunteers had to be very careful.”
In Mon State, the Bo Bo Win Rescue Foundation mobilized with Community Partners International’s support to offer oxygen support to patients at a COVID-19 isolation and treatment center in the state capital, Mawlamyine.
Hta Wa Ya coordinated oxygen support at the center. “There were around 20 volunteers including me working in the center. It was full of patients who needed oxygen. Some had severe COVID-19 symptoms and needed to be hospitalized but there was no space in the hospitals,” he explains.
“I was responsible for providing oxygen concentrators to patients and refilling oxygen cylinders. The patients needed oxygen 24 hours per day, and I had to monitor them closely. Sometimes, I didn’t sleep all night because I was watching over them.”
Hta Wa Ya vividly recalls the patients that he helped. “I remember one lady who arrived at the center with a blood oxygen saturation of just 40%. Her condition was critical. At that time, oxygen concentrators were rare in Mawlamyine, and we were one of the few places to provide them. She was treated for about a month at the center and discharged when her level rose to more than 90%.”
As well as providing oxygen support at the center, volunteers from the Bo Bo Win Rescue Foundation also helped COVID-19 patients who couldn’t access health facilities. “We lent oxygen concentrators to patients at home,” Hta Wa Ya explains. “When we delivered the concentrators, we adjusted the oxygen levels with advice from doctors so that the patients would receive the right amount of oxygen and installed equipment to protect them from power outages.”
Despite the immense challenges, the experience of providing care during the COVID-19 surge brought Hta Wa Ya and his fellow volunteers together. “We were delighted to see patients survive life-threatening situations. We felt that we had helped them as much as we could. We became very close because we worked hard together at a critical time.”