Cyclone brought swift death to the poor

Source: The Jakarta Post

By Ati Nurbaiti

Tha Yote proudly held up his second-born child, which he said was still unnamed. In early May his wife had a safe and free delivery at the Mae Too clinic in the border town of Mae Sot. The family will return for vaccinations, spending thousands of the local currency, kyat, on transportation.

In Myanmar, the young father said, he would have had to pay 40,000 kyat (about US$400) for the delivery.

Those who can cross the border to the famed clinic of Dr. Cynthia Maung in this border town in northern Thailand are still lucky. Initially built as a safe house for those wounded in clashes between the Myanmar military and ethnic militias, the clinic is now a large compound with a number of wards.

Staff say patients, mostly those from Myanmar who crossed the border into Thailand, feel safe here even though many are stateless.

The disaster sweeping over Myanmar hit a population with many people living on the edge.

Even if one safely delivered a healthy infant, health experts say the chances that the baby would die before his fifth birthday are still too high.

A physician, Voravit Suwanvanichkij, points to the population pyramid of Myanmar, which shows a thin number of adults compared to the heavy bottom of the graphic, which are the children.

“This is a typical pyramid of countries in protracted conflict,” he said.

“Too many are born, and too many die,” the doctor told a workshop held by the Southeast Asia Press Alliance in Bangkok days before the cyclone.

Then Cyclone Nargis brought swift death to many, with an estimated 40 percent of victims children, according to UNICEF.

Latest estimates of the dead from the disaster are 100,000, but the widely condemned lack of government action to speed up aid has led to fears the death toll will climb.

Reports say that a week after the cyclone hit, people are drinking contaminated water, rotting bodies litter the landscape and one in five children are suffering from diarrhea.

Countries with power-obsessed regimes have telling budgets.

Just across the border, Thailand annually allocates (US$61) in health costs for each citizen, Suwanvanichkij said.

And Myanmar? Just 40 U.S. cents, according to latest figures, despite its rich resources luring foreign investors.

Thailand spent US$500,000 to fight malaria last year, with clear results.

At the clinic, one of many volunteers said that “all cases of malaria come from Myanmar”.

Asked her impressions of the patients streaming in every day, Catherine Boyd said it was clear there were no facilities in Myanmar for their ailments, “while what facilities are available are very expensive”.

The patients hopping on one foot around the surgery ward include many landmine victims — while Myanmar is not at war with any country.

“We get landmine cases once a week,” Boyd said.

Since independence from Britain 60 years ago, “we’re under a permanent war of occupation” between the government army against the armies of the ethnic minorities, said the chief editor of an ethnic media outlet. Khuen Sai Jaiyen is chief editor of the Shan Herald news agency, one of several unofficial media operating from outside Myanmar.

Some medical experts trying to help their countrymen and women from outside their homeland have become passionate advocates, angrily hammering the point that health — including so many unnecessary deaths — cannot be separated from politics.

Suwanvanichkij said in his presentation titled “Dictators, diseases and displacement” that many landmine victims were people “forging for food in the forests”. As military leaders are expected to take care of their own soldiers, whole villages are forced to move elsewhere with little notification.

As for Myanmar’s closest ally, Thailand, its government “cannot just address issues with the junta that it is comfortable with”, he said. Preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and elephantiasis are all issues that need mass public education, apart from government policies to guide health workers and efforts at budgeting.

“Even a mosquito net is too expensive for many people,” Boyd said.

Most households must spend an average of 70 percent of their income for food — and the cyclone has swept away what little was left of people’s resources.


The above article was first published in “Jakarta Post” on 13 May 2008.

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