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Meeting Health Care Needs as Conflict Roils Myanmar

From trauma-related wounds to Covid-19 treatments, the Asia-based group Community Partners International helps Myanmar health care providers care for their patients.


Humanitarian Crisis

A Community Partners International staff member speaks with a community member in the Ayeyarwady Region of Myanmar. (Photo by Gregg Butensky/Kirana Productions for Community Partners International)

In May, when the Myanmar army attacked the village where Daw Bu Meh* lived with her family, there was no time to pack. Daw Bu Meh and her family – which included a six-year-old child – fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and their house was destroyed in the attack.

As the fighting spread, the family moved from place to place, surviving on what little those around them could spare.

Then, the family made contact with a local foundation that gave them food, water, clothing, and medicine – as they were doing for hundreds of families displaced by conflict in Myanmar’s Karenni State.

It wasn’t always easy for the foundation to help. Blocked and unsafe roads made it difficult to transport supplies at times, and rations could be limited. But they found ways to get around the roadblocks – and had the support of the Asia-based NGO Community Partners International (CPI).

CPI works with local health care providers and health systems in South Asia, providing medicine, supplies, and trainings for organizations working on the ground. Their focus is on strengthening capacity rather than on making one-time interventions.

“We don’t fly in a team of doctors…because, when the disaster’s over, we will fly out,” explained founder Dr. Thomas Lee. Instead, “we work through a local partner. The advantage of that is that despite the coup, most of our partners are still able to function,” including health systems run by ethnic minorities, such as the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, an organization run by Myanmar’s Karen people.

An urgent need

Even before military forces took control of Myanmar’s government in February, the country’s health system was fragile, Lee said. CPI’s members were already strongly concerned about the spread of Covid-19 in the country, which has experienced decades of instability.

But the February coup has plunged Myanmar into unrest and gravely disrupted health care.

“It’s very difficult for the poor and vulnerable populations, even if they don’t have any conflict in their area,” said Dr. Si Thura, CPI’s executive director, who works in Myanmar.

Even at the best of times, most people rely on public health services for everything from chronic disease care to C-sections. Now, Si Thura said, “public assistance has almost collapsed.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by conflict. Si Thura estimated that even before the coup, 1 million people in Myanmar were “living in a humanitarian situation” that required international assistance, and that 200,000 more have been displaced since February.

However, many of CPI’s partners have continued to provide health support during the coup, and a number of free clinics have sprung up to address urgent health needs, which range from basic primary care to trauma from gunshots and landmines.

In addition, Si Thura said, a new wave of Covid-19 is spiking in Myanmar. More than 2,900 cases were reported on July 5, according to Johns Hopkins University, and Si Thura said it’s likely that actual case counts are five or six times higher than the official numbers, due to a lack of testing.

“With the unpreparedness…I don’t know where the country is heading,” he said.

An ongoing mission

But CPI is helping meet needs across the board – primary care, maternity care, trauma care, and Covid-19 treatment, among others.

Lee explained that conflict settings, like Myanmar’s, have wide-ranging effects on health. Lack of access to health care, displacement, disruption of supply chains, and other forces can worsen maternal and child health outcomes, and make infectious diseases like malaria and HIV more widespread.

In addition, Covid-19 has created a widespread need for oxygen concentrators and other essential treatments. Bed shortages have been reported in some areas as cases surge.

Direct Relief is supporting CPI’s work in Myanmar with two grants. One, for $300,000, is directly intended to help those displaced by conflict in the Karen State by supporting the Karen Department of Health and Welfare’s facilities in the area with medicine, supplies, and trauma management trainings. The other, for $180,000, is intended to meet the health care needs created by Covid-19 and civil unrest more generally.

According to Lee, Direct Relief is “playing a huge role in what’s happening in Myanmar. This is really important stuff that will save many lives.”

CPI has been involved in Myanmar for more than 20 years. They procure medicines and supplies regionally – to support local economic systems – and have widespread community support. It’s taken years to develop the relationships and trust required to do this work effectively, Lee and Si Thura said.

“We work through local communities, we have been there for more than two decades, and we have developed strong relationships based on trust,” Si Thura said. Thanks to those relationships, CPI is able to reach Myanmar’s most vulnerable, remote, and isolated communities.

They’re also accustomed to rolling with the punches. Conflict has made it harder to get medicines and supplies to the health care organizations where they’re badly needed, and on a couple of occasions, shipments have been stopped or even confiscated. Undaunted, CPI has found new channels, and sometimes simply provides funding to the organizations so they can safely procure their own medical aid, Si Thura said.

“Even though we do emergency relief, we always do it in a way that helps to build the health system of the organization we’re supporting,” Lee said.

And in the midst of political conflict, the organization’s mission remains a simple one – to make sure health care is continuously available to people living in South and Southeast Asia.
“Even once the dust settles, we’re there to stay,” Lee said. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to make sure that humanitarian relief continues to reach those who need it most.”

* Name changed due to safety concerns. 

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