Prospect Burma alumni support Yangon’s most under-served population

For many months, the PB team has been working hard on an exciting new project, designed to help unify our alumni, and support them as they work to create significant and lasting change in their communities. With the outbreak of COVID-19 we have had to adjust our plans, but our alumni have risen to the challenge. We are delighted to introduce you to ARCH, and the incredible alumni who are making a difference on their doorsteps.

Since the early 1990s, Prospect Burma has supported over 1,400 people from Myanmar through higher education. Over this time they have graduated and moved on to build careers for themselves, spanning a huge plethora of industries and answering developmental needs throughout the country. For the past couple of years, we have been working behind the scenes on a new programme to support them at the next stage of their journey, by helping to unify groups of alumni in locations around the country. These new Alumni Regional Cluster Hubs – or ARCHs – will be rolled out across Myanmar, starting with the first group in Yangon. They will offer a space for our change makers to network, skill share, and answer the needs of their local communities.

The first ARCH was launched at the beginning of this year in Yangon. Over initial meetings ARCH members discussed what they would like to do as a group, working with the PB team to plan activities. Over the following weeks these plans had to be radically changed, as the outbreak of COVID-19 spread around the world, causing untold devastation to the global community.  Early this April the brand new Yangon ARCH mobilised to pre-empt the impact of COVID-19 in Yangon.

A family from Shwepyithar collect supplies

Shwepyithar township is in the northern part of Yangon, and is one of the poorest parts of the city. The majority of the people living in this region are casual, or day workers, relying on a daily wage to support themselves and their families. Approximately 300,000 people live in Shwepyithar, many of whom have migrated to the area from across the country to seek work. For people who rely on a daily wage, and who work in an industrial region in positions in factories and at the port, social distancing and working from home are impossibilities.

“My ultimate goal is for a civilised society where everyone’s voice matters.”

We spoke with members of the ARCH Executive Committee, to find out about their work reacting to COVID-19 in this region.

Nowaii Linn is the Communications Officer for the Yangon ARCH Executive Committee, and undertook a master’s degree in Communications Arts at Bangkok University, Thailand, with the support of Prospect Burma. She is of Ta’ang (Palaung) ethnicity, a group that has experienced ongoing human rights violations including widespread land confiscation. She told us:

“Being a minority Ta’ang, surrounded by drug users and growing up in a civil war zone – where groups of people are struggling for national identity – pushed me to take part in building a nation of democracy in homogeneity and diversity. My ultimate goal is for a civilised society where everyone’s voice matters, yet express a collective national identity.”

Today, Nowaii Linn has returned to Myanmar and now works for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Hlaing Wai Wai Phyo is the ARCH Chair. With Prospect Burma support, she undertook a PhD in Public Health at BRAC University in Bangladesh. Today she is a qualified medical doctor, working to improve public health services in Myanmar. With the challenges the country is currently facing, she is eminently qualified to lead activities to help support local communities at risk of high impact from COVID-19.

Yangon ARCH chose to partner with Thazin Oo Clinic, which has been run by Dr. Yee Zin Oo and his wife U Thet in Shwepyithar for over 20 years, offering a range of primary care services as well as additional treatments including tuberculosis, HIV, Malaria, and sexual and reproductive health treatments. The ARCH team members worked with Dr Yee Zin Oo and U Thet to identify 57 households which they considered to be particularly at risk of impact from COVID-19, which they catagorised as households which had elderly or infant family members, chronic illness, day workers or a family member with a disability.

“Many of them have limited healthcare knowledge. It is very important to ensure they have access to COVID-19 health  awareness and accurate information from reliable sources to be able to protect themselves — as well as where to go if they have fever,” Dr. Yee Zin Oo told us.

The ARCH delivered supplies of rice and chickpeas (staples of the Myanmar diet), and soap to families in the township, in advance of the anticipated lockdown, to help support families through the impending crisis. They also conducted hand-washing demonstrations, to share governmental advice on preventing the spread of bacteria. Nowai Linn explained how the ARCH managed the activities to be safe for everyone involved:

“During this sensitive situation, the most important thing is to perform the activity less crowded in order to imply social distancing policy in place… This clinic has already equipped with handwashing facility with soap and water. [We conducted a] demonstration of proper hand washing and everyone needed to wash their hands properly at the facility and soap in-front of the donation room before entering.”

“I am in my 60s. I and my wife afford three meals a day only when I go out and get to sell some pillows. If we must stay at home, we both probably will die of hunger.”

As well as distributing vital food they also shared information on COVID-19, including the incubation period, signs to look out for and information on how to keep households safe and how to seek treatment if necessary.

The team spoke with residents to understand more about how COVID-19 would impact on their lives. U Sein Than lives in Shwepyithar, and sells pillows for a living in downtown Yangon. He told ARCH members:

“I am in my 60s. I and my wife afford three meals a day only when I go out and get to sell some pillows. If we must stay at home, we both probably will die of hunger.”

Another resident, Daw Aye Myint said, “I have to rely on my youngest son for foods and medical expenses. I cannot imagine my life if he loses his job because of the COVID-19.”

The distribution of food and hygiene materials will help support people for some time during the lockdown period.

Following the success of this activity, the ARCH members also decided they wanted to support health care systems within the city, which would be severely tested by the pandemic. The group decided to donate protective equipment, which is in high demand, to two of the city’s quarantine centres, Hlaing and Mingalardon. They told us:

“Hlaing center is primarily targeted for people who came from abroad whereas Mingalardon center is the largest center running 2 hotel quarantines, 4 facility quarantines and 4 community quarantines sub-centers accommodating nearly 1000 population in total…they were much appreciated because those items were listed items for urgent needs.”

Since these activities took place, stricter restrictions have been put in place and residents in Yangon have had their movements limited, so there is now a pause on ARCH activities. ARCH member Eugene, who undertook a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts Studies with Prospect Burma’s support, lives in the Insein region of Yangon, an area of the city which he tells us in strict lock down at the moment. He is currently unable to go out at all. Their momentum however is not affected by this, and while they are prevented from going out the ARCH members are holding online meetings to plan their next steps.

With thanks to Nowai Linn for the photography.