Life Under The Veil Of COVID-19 Stress: A Story Of Community In Conflict Affected Zone Of Laiza

Photo: Mai Sak Pa quarantine center in Laiza (Kachin Net)

Needless to say, that the degree and extend of severity that have encroached into our very day life by the current COVID-19 pandemic, and how life would be like for all people living under the COVID-19 stress. Everyone at this point of time, I hope, has realized that how social being we are when all of us are being impacted by the current situation that necessarily limits the nature of human’s sociability.

Social guidelines, lockdown, quarantine, surveillance, COVID-19 dash board, economic breakdown, whatever one called as conspiracy theory of virus spilled from Wuhan’s virology lab, vaccine research update and so and so have become talking of the day even in the local community level.

Life in Laiza that has already been locked under armed conflict since early 60s and heighten scale of armed conflict in recent years is also in deed not being spared from the current COVID-19 pandemic impact. Though the local people here might not be aware of the stun defense and justifications given to the BBC’s presenter Steven Sucker’s pressing hard questions by Dr. David Nabarro – the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19 on all accusations and mistrust held on WHO by the world community, it is still not reflecting a sense of hope and trust in the mind of the local people on the world community who never show up in the local COVID-19 response operation particularly in this so called hard-to-reach area of conflict zone of restive Kachin state.

The local agencies including Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has plunged into action in of fear of infecting and spreading the contagious virus in their controlled areas with the resources they have in hand, and with the service readiness available in place. The local people are worrying that the resources and service readiness available in the local area is not enough to deal with the virus in the worst-case scenario if ever happened.

How life is like
under COVID-19 pandemic threat

Life in Laiza and surrounding areas have already been under life threatening humanitarian crisis situation since 2011 when the gruesome armed conflict resumed involving fierce ground battles, pounding of artillery shelling, and in most of the times deploying helicopter gunship and fighter jet strikes by the Myanmar government forces. The local host community in Laiza are being fed by KIO while tens of hundreds of IDPs have only been survived by external humanitarian assistance since then.

Restrictive border crossing into China, loss of livelihoods – large portion of the population depends on traditional farming, live threatening security condition, crowded living condition in sprawling IDPs camps located along the stretch of the China border line in Kachin state and impeded humanitarian assistance by the international humanitarian agencies imposed by current Daw Aung San SuKyi’s government beginning from mid of 2016, has caused untold miseries and hardships to the local IDPs as well as the local host community since then.

Normally business activities are more or less a sort of illegal cross border trading activitiesas the local businessmen brough in food, commodities and other essential materials from China while some goods are being transported into Laiza from other parts of the country through the frontline by the local transporters that also usually depends on the skill of transporters in dealing with the military personnel positioned there, and it can be said that the goods coming in from inside the country are taking place at the mercy of the soldiers in the frontline.

Hassle of life activities in this packed small border town of Laiza that is being over crowed by tens of hundreds of IDP population since 2011 has turned significantly looks stand still as the local KIO authority – particularly COVID-19 Response Committee lays down restrictions measures on movement of goods and people, since mid of March. Laying out more social distancing guidelines, stayhome order, issuing of order to totally closedown only few KTV centers in the town, massage parlours, closing down of the schools and Sunday worships, and banning of ceremonial and festive activities that attract large crowd make life much dull and boring.

It is indeed a worth mentioning fact that Laiza is probably the only town in the country where the believers have a chance to join the Sunday service online from home through the local Laiza TV telecasts service programmes every Sunday since the KIO’s COVID-19 Response Committee issued public order.

Despite the announcement of public order people still do not look significantly different in their daily routine movements until April 14 when a news spread – probably leaked from inner clinical and COVID-19 response management circle that a suspected patient’s COVID-19 rapid test showed positive. The town has turned into a ghosttownlike situation for few days until when the patient’s swap test result finally came to light that it was negative.

The test has been conducted in Mangshi (Luxi), China with the help of the Chinese CDC who rushed in from across the border the same night to get the swap sample from the suspected COVID-19 patient forconducting laboratory test. It was later found out that the rapid test has been conducted using IgM/IgG 2 in 1 to 2019-nCOV (Colloidal Gold) branded with the Donovan Co. Lt., made in China brough in by a visiting a charity group from Yangon who came all the way from Yangon along with some items to donate to the local COVID-19 response programme. People in the first instant were furious and frustrated with the rumour of suspected COVID-19 patient as well as the spread of patient’s personal information in the social media far and wide which in general should not have happened anyway.

In the later days one of the visiting charity group members made a blunt criticism on the management style of the COVID-19 committee and local authorities on letting public hassle and bustle in Laiza to continue as usual during the critical time on her facebook page that fetched dozens of comments from many Kachin facebook users. The spread of rumour about the positive patient has turned out to be useful in disguise. It is observed that people now do not go out except for the essential work and prefer to stay at home and wash their hands more than ever.

I believe our life here are better off than people’s life in the urban areas. Once lockdown begins people in the urban areas will find themselves confined inside small rooms in the flats and apartments as the scorching summer temperature increasing day by day, and but we still have ample space to spend the time finding ourselves to couch in the backyard,said one local resident whose home is located close to the Laiza stream that divides China and Myanmar. Many people from Laiza have already gone to their farm house a bit far away from the congested life in Laiza as a way of taking self-preventive measure in self-isolation condition. But life of the people who are currently languishing in the different COVID-19 quarantine centers set up by the community surveillance action with poorly equipped facilities is exceptional to what have been stated here.

To my surprise I find the people look so receptive to the arising situation and with this simple assumption I am confident that people who have already been in the dire situation for many years are ready to outlast the scourge of current COVID-19 pandemic situation as they show so determined and resilience.


Community response to COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 fear stricken IDP community have taken strict community surveillance measures within the camps by setting up community quarantine facilities in community halls and empty school compounds to put up people who return from outside the camp – particularly from China and outside the KIO control area for a minimum 14 days. At every entry and exit points of every camp one will see flock of young volunteers [not trained] assigned by the respective camp management committee asking people to ware mask and wash their hands at the temporarily set up hand washing stations there, and spray disinfectant at the cars and two wheelers passing by before getting into the IDP camp area, but surprisingly most of the volunteers themselves do not wear mask.

Frequent public announcements were also seen in all the camps using loud speakers by the camp management committee and mounting of IEC materials
published by KIO’s Health Department, UNICEF, and Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) of Myanmar government in public places clearly visible to the people passing by.

It is learned that there are eight community COVID-19 quarantine centers
across seven IDP camps (Dum Bung, Hpunlum Yang, Je Yang, Woi Chyai, Pa Jau, Sha-it Yang and Maga Yang) and host community and in most cases these centers are poorly equipped, and the volunteers who are assigned there to look after the quarantined people are also not provided with necessary protective equipment.

Currently there are more than fifty people being put in those quarantine centers. Some of the people placed under quarantine status are the people just returned back from outside the camp who recently had gone to a village located in the mountainous region across the border in China are also included. “I have just gone to work in a farm in Maru Bum village just across the border for few days, that too was in the farm in remote village located in between the jungle. And upon my return back I am put here for fourteen days,” said a young boy from Je Yang IDP camp who is currently in the school compound meant for camp’s quarantine facilities.


Preventive measures under taken by the local agencies

Despite restrictive Wifi connections to the China net, online calls, zoom meetings and trainings, contingency plans, cancelling and postponing of programme activities, no-cost extension (NCE), closing down of offices, work from home, remote assistance provision, and forming up emergency response team within the organizations have become the routine activities under taking in the face of COVID-19 emergency situation for the organizations not only INGOs but also the local NGOs like ours.

There are very few local NGOs and agencies in Laiza as well as throughout KIO control area. With the onset of the COVID-19 infections in the country by mid of March, the local organizations as many national and International NGOs do, have drawn up their own organizational continuity contingency plan by cancelling and postponing many of their project activities, and temporarily close down their offices.

The organization where I work is also one among such organizations that have taken drastic measures for the sake of safety and security of its staff and organization’s continuity. Being a part of the Joint Strategy Team (JST) – a local humanitarian alliance engaging in humanitarian response in Kachin state and northern Shan state of Myanmar our organization also joined the advocacy effort to reach up to national and international level.

JST’s secretariat had urgent meetings with humanitarian stake holders including UNOCHA and WHO in mid of March in Yangon and made an earnest request to urgently organize a ToT (training of trainer) for the JST’s member organization regarding COVID-19 related knowledge on community awareness rising. The WHO in deed accepted JST’s request and conducted urgent ToT trainings two times – one each in Lashio and Myitkyina.

As the news of corona virus infections in the country spread, KIO also formed a COVID-19 task force called COVID-19 Preventive Committee at the central level chaired by a prominent KIO’s central committee standing member.

It is learned that KIO has sanctioned tens of millions of Myanmar Kyats for COVID-19 response activities and coordinating all the COVID-19 response operations by its concern departments and local organizations. The committee although formed lately plays vital role and take the leadership role in this response action. The committees so formed is doing its jobs by scaling up locally adapted operational activities by setting up temperature surveillance posts in every exit and entry points of the town including border crossing points, setting up quarantine and isolation facilities, forming up implementing work sub-committee, laid out social guidelines, issued public announcements, maintaining coordination across different levels administrative bodies within KIO as well as with the external agencies including Chinese CDC across the border.

Interesting fact to note here that all the assistances coming in from different corners of the country and from different agencies meant for the COVID-19 preventive actions are reached to the beneficiaries under one operational strategy designed by COVID-19 Preventive Committee.

The initiatives taken so far by the local agencies in fight against the scourge of COVID-19 danger, I would say, deserve to be called in line with UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)’s  “Interim Guidance for Public Health and Social Measures for COVID-19 Preparedness and Response in Low Capacity and Humanitarian Settings”, version (1).


If the worst-case scenario ever happened

One can even imagine how the situation would look like in the stance of worst-case scenario ever happened this area. Let us say infection case happened here – where would patients get treatment where the facilities are poorly equipped with not even one ICU in place, where there is lack of skilled medical practitioners, and would it be practical to expect that the Chinese CDC will take care of the patients in their hospitals or clinics in China even in the case when one person has been infected? I do not think so, and so is the reason why the local people are so worried and feel helpless.

Instead the Chinese will totally ban border crossing, and even enforce total ban on movement of goods and people. Likewise, the local transporters will no longer dare to come to Laiza to bring in essential commodities and goods from outside KIO control areas in the state. No one knows how long would the local people can outlast such condition – one month, two months or more?

Everyone knows as Dr. David Nabarro also said in his BBC Hard Talk that WHO does not work in the way to bypass the sovereign government of the country or to force the governments and agencies to act as it instructs, and works only with the consent of and only when it has been invited by the government of the land to operate inside the country.

I am not sure government and KIO will take the path to getting peace deal or a sort of temporary ceasefire immediately by compromising few or all the demands and positions they hold and value much by both even in the face of worst-case scenario as both the government and ethnic armed organizations in the country seem to ignore the recent global immediate cease-fire called  by UN Secretary General.

Hope for overcoming the current situation but worrying renewed impending armed conflict impending

It is inappropriate to take current Arkan conflict as an example to compare with conflict in Kachin. But waring parties might always look for an opportunity to crash its opponent, and thus both sides might see the current COVID-19 emergency situation as a golden chance to use their silver bullets. So is the fear of impending escalation of armed conflict in the wake of current situation as speculated by the local people.

About author: La Rip is the Executive Director of “Kachin Development Group (KDG)” based in Laiza, Kachin statewho’s organization is currently working on humanitarian assistance to the Kachin IDPs particularly KIO control area in Kachin state since 2005, and currently his organization is responding to COVID-19 prevention along side with other local partner organizations. He can be reached at [email protected] .