The number of COVID-19 confirmed cases and the death toll in Myanmar is small compared to that of other countries. Yet, Myanmar today faces an unprecedented emergency and the decisions it makes in the coming days may shape its future for many decades to come.
Until now, so much about the virus remains unknown and the projected death toll linked to the virus cannot be accurately estimated, however, the means through which the spread of the virus occurs have been known. On the other hand, according to the standards by the World Health Organization, Myanmar is one of the lowest-ranking countries in terms of its public health system and it has since been in a state of healthcare emergency for a long time.
The response for Myanmar is to build clinical capacity as quickly as possible and adopt measures to limit the spread of the disease. However, the author posits that Myanmar’s options in accomplishing the tasks are limited and the efforts to mitigate are constrained. The government’s significant measures on the latter front, from suspending international commercial flights to restricting some commercial activity and ending large gatherings are in place, however, Myanmar’s attempts to take similar measures – such as lockdowns and enforced social distancing – adopted by the developed countries may be disastrous. Such measures are extremely difficult for poor families living in slums and casual laborers living on site to comply with. Along these lines, economic suffering the measures bring about may perhaps be far worse than anything COVID-19 itself inflicts.
Even with the small fraction of COVID-19 confirmed cases and death toll, Myanmar has seen significant economic damage. The collapse of the tourism and garment sector, a rapid fall in remittances from abroad, a major income drop for farmers, and lay-off of tens of thousands of staff from other business sectors will soon hit Myanmar.
While many countries responded with stimulus packages committing up to 10 or even 15 percent of their GDP to rescue businesses and provide income to ordinary people, the sum of Myanmar’s spending represented a paltry 0.02 percent of its GDP. The author suggests that there is a considerably greater room for Myanmar to afford a US$ 1-2 Billion package given the underspent 2019-2020 budget, the availability of dollars in the state-owned banks, and the capacity of the Central Bank to print more money.
The author acknowledges that there are broadly three scenarios for Myanmar regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The first scenario is that the spread of the virus is minimal and the existing system can cope with it. There is greater economic hardship but no worse than at other times in recent history. The second scenario is one where the virus rapidly spreads, and the death toll rises in both rural and urban areas but the situation returns to normal over the next few months. The third and the most extreme scenario is where Myanmar faces the full onslaught of the disease with hundreds of thousands of people dying in both rural and urban areas and social and economic crises that affect both the poor and the middle classes ensues. In the absence of good options, the government turns to a more security-oriented approach. This final scenario, the author states, is the beginning of a downward spiral from which there may not be any recovery for a long time.
The author states that the country can hope for the best but the hope is not a strategy. He further suggests embarking on a bold program of economic stimulus. Done right, spending lays the foundations for Myanmar’s new democracy, one with a better public health and social welfare system. If handled right, the challenges may turn to opportunities.
This article of Myanmar version is available at ISP-Myanmar Special Series