Myanmar has been under the thumb of army generals since the military coup there in February. But even before the coup, nearly 3 million Burmese were facing hunger.
Now, the United Nations World Food Program estimates that that number could more than double by October. To make matters worse, COVID-19 is spreading alarmingly fast there.
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UN agencies had warned in July that hunger is expected to rise in 23 global hot spots in the next three months, adding Myanmar, along with five other countries, to the list since releasing its March report.
Stephen Anderson, country director of the World Food Program, spoke with The World's Marco Werman about the situation from Myanmar's capital city, Naypyidaw.
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Marco Werman: Stephen, what does the hunger problem look like in the capital? And is it at all reflective of other parts of the country?
Stephen Anderson: The situation now, I would say, in Myanmar, is the most difficult time for the people in living memory. First of all, they have poverty combined with political unrest and economic crisis since the military takeover in February and COVID. We've had a very terrible wave last year, but the one that's hitting us now, it's like a tsunami that's hit this country.
Well, the UK's ambassador to the UN has said that half of Myanmar's 54 million people could get COVID within weeks. What numbers are you hearing and what are your concerns for the coming weeks and months?
You know, that number, of course, it sounds very dramatic, but it rings true with me because people are being put in hospitals. The hospitals are full. There's not enough oxygen. I'm concerned that it's not only a health crisis, but it's going to also have an immense impact on people's livelihoods. We're seeing it in Napyidaw, but we're seeing it worse in the bigger cities, like Yangon and Mandalay. I mean, we did a survey in the poorest areas of Yangon. Ninety percent of the people had to borrow money just to buy food.
So, I understand these conditions. What happened to food stocks, though, how did that get worse?
Well, there is food in the country. The problem is not so much one of availability. It's one of access. So, the poorest people do not have enough money to buy the food to put it on the table for their families. They've lost income because the economy is in a tailspin. It's been very difficult just to find odd jobs that were there in the past. The price of fuel, the price of gas, the price of food have also increased.
So, COVID, as you said, has had an economic impact on the people of Myanmar, like so many parts of the globe. How has COVID impacted your distribution networks in Myanmar?
We had to really rethink how we carry out distribution. For example, in the informal settlements on the outskirts of Yangon. Whereas before, we would line up the distribution and people would come and they would socially distance. We can't afford right now to have people crowding. So, we're trying to deliver door to door.
And outside the big cities, like Yangon and Naypyidaw, and more rural areas, is that aid getting to the families that need it?
Well, we are getting assistance to the Rohingya and other ethnic groups mainly living closer to the border areas of Myanmar. But we have to, of course, apply on a monthly basis for approval for each of our distributions. And COVID has slowed everything down because we need to provide evidence that our staff has been tested for COVID. We're trying to also get vaccination for all of, not only our staff but also partners and contractors, including truck drivers. But that's also been a big challenge where vaccinations have been very limited compared to many countries. And it's partly due to the military takeover, which set back a lot of public health efforts.
As a UN agency, neutrality is important to the mission of the World Food Program. To what degree, though, does the World Food Program cooperate with Myanmar's military government? I mean, describe the relationship and how you're trying to balance that.
You know, our focus is to support the people of Myanmar who are facing hunger and food insecurity. So, that's our mission. To get to them, we have to coordinate with multiple layers of de facto authorities. We just have to explain what we're doing and explain that our assistance is neutral, and we try to make sure that we avoid any attempt to politicize our assistance.
What is your first priority right now?
We know the situation is deteriorating. So, my objective is to be able to get out and assist those people who are most in need, but also raise the necessary resources so that we can actually purchase food and sustain support.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.