Delivering the dead and helping the living in Myanmar virus spike

·2-min read

Volunteers in white hazmat suits unload a stretcher from a pick-up truck parked in a Yangon suburb and carry their neighbourhood's latest Covid-19 victim towards the crematorium.

There will be no traditional funeral rites, as Myanmar confronts a new and growing outbreak, with thousands of health workers on strike against a February coup.

The State Administration Council -- as the military junta calls itself -- reported more than 4,300 new cases Saturday, up from fewer than 50 per day in early May.

"Before... people were scared to see emergency teams wearing PPE," Tun Khine, one of the volunteers in Hle Guu township north of Yangon, told AFP on Saturday.

"But now, they are looking for us. The situation is upside down."

Tun Khine, a businessman who spoke under a pseudonym, was already a member of a local volunteer group before the pandemic hit.

Last year they began providing a free taxi service for those stricken with the virus, taking them to hospitals or quarantine centres.

On Saturday the group took seven bodies away, he says -- one from the hospital which was confirmed positive, and six others who were suspected to have died of the virus.

Tun Khine and his team load the bodies into a giant coffin-like box on the back of a white pick-up truck, which bumps down the road, the volunteers riding with it in the back.

The journey ends outside a crematorium, where the body is committed to the flames, with no family members present and without the ritual that is usual in the majority-Buddhist nation.

- 'Of course we are afraid' -

"Of course we are afraid" of becoming infected, says Tun Khine.

"But our bigger fear is our people being infected and risking their lives."

The team is also struggling to find places that will take the living, he says.

Many quarantine centres stopped operating in the chaos that followed the coup, where mass protests in Yangon and other cities were met with a brutal military crackdown.

Top health officials, including the head of Myanmar's vaccination programme, have been detained by the junta.

Only around 1.75 million of the country's 54 million people have been vaccinated, according to state media.

At the end of the shift, Tun Khine and his team hose each other down with disinfectant, and prepare for another day of transporting patients and bodies.

But they vow to continue.

"More people are going to die if we stop working because we are afraid," he says.