Meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar

July 08, 2020
A woman migrant worker from Myanmar operates a textile mill in Thailand.
Areeluck Phankhian/ILO
COVID-19 has forced many migrant workers back to Myanmar from neighbouring countries, creating economic and health challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic impacts are compounding an already delicate democratization process in Myanmar. Many of the country’s researchers are addressing this new challenge to ensure gains on health, the economy, and political participation are not lost.

Every country needs its own community of think tanks, universities, and civil society organizations that can generate evidence to inform decision-making, especially in times of crisis. The Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar initiative, a five-year IDRC partnership with Global Affairs Canada, supports the growth of this community in Myanmar. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative’s research partners have focused on issues of particular relevance for policymakers.

In recent months, these partners investigated and raised awareness about issues related to COVID-19, such as returning migrant workers, the slowdown in the garment industry, an increase in domestic violence, and impacts on democratic reform and the peacebuilding process. This rapid and nationally relevant research is essential for effective policy responses to external shocks, such as the pandemic.

Research highlights

Researchers in Myanmar are focussing on issues of particular relevance for policymakers and communicating evidence from this research during the COVID-19 pandemic. The issues include:

  • the health and economic impacts of returning migrant workers;
  • women losing jobs in the economic sectors suffering most from the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • a rise in domestic violence; and
  • the spread of misinformation and media blackouts. 

The health and economic challenges of returning migrants

Compared to many countries, COVID-19 has been slow to gain a foothold in Myanmar. As of July 3, 2020, the Ministry of Health and Sport website reported 306 cases of COVID-19 and six deaths nationwide. However, Myanmar is a substantial supplier of migrant labour to neighbouring countries and any movement of people in and out of the country presents great risk.

A Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar grantee, the Centre for Economic and Social Development, warns that migrant workers returning from other countries pose health and economic challenges for policymakers. Their return puts economic pressure on households dependant on the money they sent home. The centre’s research shows that some households in Mon state, for example, relied on remittances for as much as 25% of their income. As migrants return, they also risk spreading COVID-19 among the population. Zaw Oo, the centre’s executive director, argues in the Myanmar Times that policy responses are not considering the particular needs of migrants, who may be more exposed to COVID-19, who risk losing their livelihoods, and whose movements in large flows could further spread the virus. Migrants need to be considered as a unique group for both humanitarian reasons and their key contribution to household incomes.

Job losses for women

The pandemic’s impact on the economy is concentrated on manufacturing, especially the garment sector, which employs thousands of female migrant workers in factories in Yangon and elsewhere. Demand for garments made in Myanmar has collapsed worldwide. COVID-19 restrictions have affected production chains, starting with the disruption of demand from China and other Asian countries, followed by the depletion of demand from Europe once the virus spread there.

Myanmar does not have the capacity to deploy the kind of economic interventions in force in Canada and the European Union to limit the impact of COVID-19 prevention measures on employment. This leaves Myanmar’s workforce exposed to hardship.

The Centre for Economic and Social Development is working closely with the government to develop a long-term strategy for the garment sector while trying to develop a bridging social protection program for workers, who are mostly women. The European Union has offered CA$8 million in emergency funding for Myanmar garment workers; the Myan Ku fund (“Quick Response” in the Myanmar language) pays cash directly to laid-off workers to help them through this crisis.

Gender equality gains at risk

Local think tanks and networks are advocating for measures to ensure the health crisis does not undermine women’s rights by eroding gains that have been made over recent years.

Women make up the vast majority of domestic violence victims, which is on the rise across the country — part of a global pattern. According to Legal Clinic Myanmar, domestic violence cases have become more common now that lockdowns and curfew orders are in effect. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement created a 24-hour helpline to report complaints and provide access to counseling services.

Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar research partners are raising awareness through campaigns and online outreach activities. For example, the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation engages with constituents through the monthly newsletter Sa Voix to highlight the importance of including women in government responses to the pandemic. The foundation points out that women are at disproportionate risk because they are workers in addition to caregivers at home and at health facilities. The Gender Equality Network, another initiative grantee, holds regular Facebook events to raise awareness about domestic violence during the pandemic.

Threats to democratic reform and peacebuilding

Progress in key areas of transition are at risk of stagnating during the pandemic, including efforts to improve access to up-to-date, independent, and credible sources of information. For example, all telecommunications operators in Myanmar are complying with a government mandated internet blackout for parts of western Myanmar. IDRC-funded research on misinformation has shown the need for freer and greater access to information about the spread of violence and the pandemic to vulnerable communities not only in Myanmar, but in neighbouring Bangladesh as well.

In an interview with international media, Min Zaw Oo, the executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, stated that the country’s peace process and possible ceasefire are seriously threatened by COVID-19. Despite a recent travel ban on independent news services in Rakhine state, this think tank continues to provide timely information and conflict monitoring across Myanmar with its annual review. The institute maintains valuable data sets, such as instances of communal violence, that help researchers understand the fluctuations in the intensity of the conflict during the pandemic.

As Myanmar nears a new milestone in democratic transformation — the country will hold its second-ever general elections later this year — the COVID-19 pandemic is an important test. Knowledge for Democracy Myanmar research partners are energized by the possibility of engaging the public with facts, analysis, and action at this critical time. In the face of the pandemic, they continue to display an unwavering determination to progress on the journey towards Myanmar’s democratic transformation.