In Myanmar’s urban slums COVID-19 is worsening a hidden crisis

COVID-19 related lockdowns have forced people into isolation also in Myanmar, affecting poor and vulnerable communities in particular. In Yangon’s growing townships of informal settlements, many of the already vulnerable people are cut off from day labour jobs that usually bring in just enough to survive. DRC in partnership with a local civil society organisation has responded to the crisis in the slums as public services are limited and with national capacity often overwhelmed.

The mosaic of informal settlements covers vast grounds in and around Myanmar’s capital, Yangon.  On riverbanks, near garbage dumps and on any vacant spot - roof tops stretch out as far as the eye can see like tightknit carpets woven by patches of straw, cardboard, plastic and iron sheets. Yangon’s rapidly expanding slum dwellings have become magnets attracting people from rural conflict and natural disaster-prone areas around the country who seek refuge and protection or simply opportunities to make a better life for themselves. But conditions are tough and space, government support, job opportunities and access to the most basic services are limited.

“COVID-19 has deepened the existing poverty around the country, not least where conflict is affecting daily lives and isolating communities from external aid. But we now also see how crisis and poverty is undermining the fragile resilience among the most vulnerable in urban areas, and how the pandemic has accelerated what has turned into an urban emergency particularly in the townships hosting the slums. And still, it is to a large extent a hidden crisis and is easily overlooked by the outside world,” says Martin Vane, Director of DRC’s operation in Myanmar.

A hidden crisis

Narrow paths, dirt tracks and river streams connect the slum settlements in downtown Yangon as a web that hardly let any light slip through between the roof edges. The dark and tough ground reality here is as invisible to the surrounding community in the local business districts as this urban humanitarian crisis is to the outside world.

“Make way – please line up, but wear a mask and keep distance”, says Maung Maung, an awarded human rights activist, who heads a civil society group in Myanmar. The organisation advocates social cohesion and inclusive nation building – not an easy task in a country made up by more than 54 million people, with 135 ethnic groups – including the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who were rendered stateless by law in 1982 and saw extensive forced displacement in 2018 - across the 14 states, many of them plagued by armed conflict inherited by generations.

COVID-19 has deepened the existing poverty around the country, not least where conflict is affecting daily lives and isolating communities from external aid.

Martin Vane, Country Director, DRC Myanmar.

Out of the Yangon’s population of 7.8 million people (2014 Myanmar Census) an estimated 5.4 million people live in the capital and 2.4 million in rural areas of the Yangon region. Here, at least 370,000 people are believed to live in informal settlements in Yangon (UN Habitat).

Eating rats and snakes to survive

Maung Maung and his colleagues usually focus on facilitating dialogue and promoting community-based conflict prevention and peaceful coexistence. However, since November 2020, the organisation has also worked with DRC on a series of distributions of food and aid packages in slums areas of Yangon during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some people have nothing else to eat than the rats they can catch. Back in the rural areas of Myanmar they would have proud traditions for eating rodents and reptiles, but rats in the slums are far from suitable for food. Still, people eat them, and snakes too, whenever they can get them and if they have nothing else.”

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When cyclone Nargis hit her village, Daw Tin Nwet lost two of her children. She now lives in the slums of Yangon and is still struggling to overcome the loss.

“Before the pandemic, life was tough here. Now, it is almost impossible to imagine the realities of daily challenges in the slums. We see how people have lost their last means to cope with the crisis from COVID-19. Factory workers, garbage collectors, widowers, elderly, disabled, women-led households, pregnant women, sex workers, vulnerable individuals from the LGBT community, and I could continue as the list is long. They can't plan much ahead or think about their future, because they are struggling for their daily survival. They just hope to get back to work as before,” says Maung maung during a visit to the slums in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, an area that has grown out of the Hlaing Thar Yar township in the industrial zone in the outskirts of Yangon. Being home to more than 150,000 people, Hlaing Thar Yar is the largest of the slum areas, and these two adjacent slums are targeted for the DRC-supported emergency aid distribution.

“Just look around and you will understand why needs are dire here, and why every drop of aid makes a difference”, says Maung Maung and adds:

“Some people have nothing else to eat than the rats they can catch. Back in the rural areas of Myanmar they would have proud traditions for eating rodents and reptiles, but rats in the slums are far from suitable for food. Still, people eat them, and snakes too, whenever they can get them and if they have nothing else.”

After more than a decade, cyclone victims still live in the slums

The urban slum dwellings often have characteristics of traditional villages in rural areas of Myanmar.  Some live in shacks that are barely inhabitable, while others have managed to construct houses on stilts known from the flood deltas of Myanmar. All constructions are crammed together to make room for more. Food is cooked on open fire, miniature patches of vegetables are grown wherever space and sunrays allow for it, and open sewage canals and garbage dumps leading into the rivers are a constant health risk to people living and working here.

The slums are a constant reminder of a natural disaster, which happened over a decade ago and has long been forgotten by the international community. But in Myanmar the trauma and effects of the devastating cyclone, Nargis, live on.

The destructive and deadly tropical cyclonic storm with the innocent name Nargis, meaning ‘The Name of a Flower’ hit Myanmar in May 2008 causing the worst natural disaster recorded in the history of the country. As massive amounts of water from the storm surge were pushed into the densely populated Irrawaddy delta, vast areas of farmland and villages were flooded causing more than 138,000 deaths and forcing thousands into displacement.  Many went to Yangon and other urban areas where they looked for shelter and protection and many are still here, living in the slum areas.

Daw Tin Nwet, moved to Yangon from a village in Bogalay Township in the Irrawaddy delta region after the cyclone devastated the area.

“We are now a family of seven. We were in the village when Nargis hit, and two of my children died. I still don’t know how to overcome and manage the thought of our loss. Many people from the village died, and our house and jobs were lost. It was like a hell,” she says and adds:

“We tried to stay, but life was hard. We sold half of our land and moved to Yangon. I wanted my daughter to be educated as she had finished high school. My husband has worked as a general labourer at a construction site. Then he worked for a while as a timber truck attendant and made 5-6,000 MMK per day (USD 3-4). Now, it is two years since he last had a job, and life has been difficult since then. One of my daughters worked at a factory but lost the job due to COVID-19. The whole family is jobless now and not in good health.”

Daw Tin Nwet explains that she tries to sell onions at the roadside, but is struggling to compete with the price and quality of wholesalers and constantly fears running into the police:

“Sometimes we have to reduce our meals to save money for the rent.”

Struggling to make ends meet

Daw Tin Nwet's story is tragic, but only one of many similar fates in the slums.

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Daw Tin Tin Nu with her husband, U Tun Yee, and one of their six children.

U Tun Yee and his wife, Daw Tin Tin Nu never recovered from the trauma and losses caused by Nargis. In 2018, they moved to Yangon with their six children hoping to find job opportunities and to look for their pregnant daughter, who had left before them to find her husband.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the family made a living from collecting garbage.

“Our house rent is 45,000 MMK (about USD 30 USD) per month and the garbage brings in just enough to pay this. One of my sons was studying but had to stop as we could not afford it.”

Due to the government-imposed lockdown, the two parents are struggling even more to make ends meet.

“Now, restrictions are so tight that we cannot work. We try to stay at home, but we also have to survive. As we can’t make money every day right now, our neighbours give us some food to eat”, says Daw Tin Tin Nu.

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, U Tun Yee and his wife Daw Tin Tin Nu made a living from collecting garbage.

The family would like to return to their village, but do not have the means to make it happen.

Many of the Nargis survivors are stuck in Yangon – afraid of returning as they have sold or lost their land and livelihoods. In addition, new disasters, the country’s many on-going conflicts and not least dreams of better opportunities for themselves and their children pushes more people to head for the slum areas.

“We see many people from northern Rakhine State who escape conflict and poverty. Ethnic minorities like the Mrau people have escaped war and came to Yangon in the spring of last year. Among them are 500 families who we are also reaching out to with aid assistance. And we hear of new waves of victims of war and conflict coming to Yangon all the time,” says Maung Maung:

“As long as conflict and COVID-19 continue to isolate us and control our lives and opportunities, the need for emergency aid in the slums will continue to grow.”

DRC's partnership with local NGO

DRC’s partnership with the Myanmar-based NGO has reached 5,200 families - equal to about 25,000 individuals - with basic food packages containing rations of rice, oil, and beans for two months. Activities in the slums of Yangon have been coordinated and implemented in collaboration with local authorities and volunteer groups.

The emergency aid project in Yangon’s slums is funded by the Augustinus Foundation in Denmark.