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Death rates skyrocket in Southeast Asia as virus wave spreads

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – Indonesia has converted almost all of its oxygen production to medical use just to meet the demand of COVID-19 patients who have trouble breathing. Overwhelmed hospitals in Malaysia have had to resort to treating patients on the floor. And in Myanmar’s largest city, cemetery workers have been working day and night to meet the grim demand for more cremations and burials.

Images of bodies burning in open-air pyres during the peak of the pandemic in India horrified the world in May, but in the past two weeks, the three Southeast Asian countries have now all exceeded the rate per capita mortality of India’s record as a new wave of coronavirus, fueled by the virulent delta variant, tightens its grip on the region.

The deaths followed a record number of new cases reported in countries in the region, which has left health systems struggling to cope and governments are scrambling to implement new restrictions in an attempt to slow down the propagation.

When Eric Lam tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized on June 17 in the Malaysian state of Selangor, the center of the country’s epidemic, the halls of the government facility were already crowded with patients on beds without room in the services.

The situation was even better than in some other hospitals in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state, where there were no free beds and patients were reportedly treated on the floor or on stretchers. The government has since added more hospital beds and converted more wards for COVID-19 patients.

Lam, 38, once recalled during his three weeks in hospital hearing a continuous beep for two hours before a nurse came to turn him off; he later learned that the patient had died.

A variety of factors have contributed to the recent outbreak in the region, including people increasingly weary of the pandemic and eluding precautions, low vaccination rates and the emergence of the delta variant of the virus, which has been first detected in India, said Abhishek Rimal. , the Asia-Pacific Emergency Health Coordinator for the Red Cross, who is based in Malaysia.

“With the measures that countries are taking, if people follow the basics of hand washing, wearing masks, maintaining distance and immunization, we will see a drop in cases in the next two weeks,” he said. he declared.

So far, however, Malaysia’s national lockdown measures have not lowered the daily rate of infections. The country of some 32 million people saw the number of daily cases exceed 10,000 on July 13 for the first time and have remained there ever since.

The vaccination rate remains low but has increased, with nearly 15% of the population now fully vaccinated and the government hoping to have a majority vaccinated by the end of the year.

The doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to try to keep pace, and Lam was one of the lucky ones.

After his condition initially deteriorated, he was placed on a ventilator in an intensive care unit filled to capacity and slowly recovered. He was released two weeks ago.

But he lost his father and brother-in-law to the virus, and another brother remains on a ventilator in intensive care.

“I feel like I have been reborn and that I have had a second chance to live,” he said.

With India’s massive population of nearly 1.4 billion, its total death toll from COVID-19 remains higher than that of countries in Southeast Asia. But the 7-day moving average of COVID-19 deaths per million in India peaked at 3.04 in May, according to the online scientific publication Our World in Data, and continues to decline.

Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia have posted strong increases since late June, and their seven-day averages reached 4.17, 4.02 and 3.18 per million, respectively, on Thursday. Cambodia and Thailand have also seen large increases in coronavirus cases and deaths, but have so far kept the rate of seven days per million people lower at 1.29 and 1.74, respectively.

Individual countries elsewhere have higher rates, but the increases are particularly alarming for a region that largely kept numbers low at the start of the pandemic.

With the Indian experience as a lesson, most countries have reacted relatively quickly with new restrictions to slow the virus and to try to meet the needs of the growing number of people hospitalized with serious illnesses, Rimal said.

“The people in this region are cautious because they have seen it right in front of them – 400,000 cases a day in India – and they really don’t want it to be repeated here,” he said in a statement. telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur.

But these measures take time to achieve the desired effect, and countries are now struggling to cope.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country with some 270 million people, reported 1,383 deaths on Wednesday, its deadliest day since the start of the pandemic.

Daily cases until about mid-June were around 8,000, but then started to increase and peak last week with more than 50,000 new infections each day. Since the detection rate in Indonesia is low, the actual number of new cases would be much higher.

As hospitals in the region began to run out of oxygen, the government stepped in and ordered manufacturers to shift most of their production for industrial use and spend 90% on medical oxygen, up from 25% previously.

Before the current crisis, the country needed 400 tons of oxygen for medical use per day; With the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, daily use has quintupled to over 2,000 tonnes, according to Deputy Health Minister Dante Saksono.

Although oxygen production is now sufficient, Lia Partakusuma, general secretary of the Indonesian Hospital Association, said there were distribution problems, so some hospitals still face shortages.

In Indonesia, around 14% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, mainly the Chinese Sinovac.

However, there is growing concern that Sinovac may be less effective against the delta variant, and Indonesia and Thailand are planning booster shots of other vaccines for their health workers immunized with Sinovac.

In Myanmar, the pandemic had overtaken the army’s takeover in February, which sparked protests and violent political conflicts that devastated the public health system.

It was only in the past few weeks, as testing and reporting of COVID-19 cases began to recover, that it became clear that a new wave of the virus starting in mid-May rapidly increasing cases and deaths.

Since the start of July, its death rate has increased almost directly, and cases and deaths are widely believed to be severely underreported.

“With low testing capacity, a low number of vaccines in the country, widespread shortages of oxygen and other medical supplies, and a health system already under siege and under increasing pressure, the situation is expected to worsen. in the weeks and months to come, “said Parliamentarians for ASEAN Human Rights, a regional rights group.

“Meanwhile, the junta’s confiscation of oxygen, attacks on health workers and health facilities since the coup and lack of confidence in the services they provide by the majority of the population, risk turning a crisis into a disaster.

On Tuesday, the government reported 5,860 new cases and 286 new deaths. There are no solid figures on vaccinations, but based on the number of doses available, it is believed that around 3% of the population could have received two injections.

Officials this week fended off social media posts that Yangon’s cemeteries were overwhelmed and could not keep up with the death toll, inadvertently confirming claims that hospitals were flooded and many people were dying at home.

Cho Tun Aung, head of the department that oversees the cemeteries, told military broadcaster Myawaddy TV on Monday that 350 staff members had been working in three shifts since July 8 to ensure proper cremations and burials at the seven main cemeteries of Yangon.

He said workers cremated and buried more than 1,200 people on Sunday alone, including 1,065 who died at home from COVID-19 and 169 who died in hospitals.

“We are working in three shifts day and night to bury the dead,” he said. “It is clear that there is no problem like posting on Facebook.”


Increase reported from Bangkok. Associated Press editors Edna Tarigan and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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