Quarantine, Funeral, Election: A Myanmar Homecoming
My repatriation flight to Myanmar looked like a hospital ward. A group of people wearing goggles, gloves, and blue dresses resembling surgical gowns walked down the aisle, pulling carts and delivering trays of food to hundreds of passengers traveling from Los Angeles to Seoul and onto my final destination Yangon.
I had just finished a 16-month journalism fellowship at Arizona State University. It was the longest I had ever been outside Myanmar in my life. The trip home was going to be long. With layovers and distance, it took a total of four days to reach Yangon from Phoenix. And once I arrived, I had 21 days of quarantine and seven days of isolation at home to look forward to, as required by the government.
Taking a relief flight was never the plan, but it became the only option as Myanmar banned international flights in April. During the long layover in Seoul, I became friends with some other Myanmar returnees. I met a Buddhist monk in a saffron robe as we walked out of the quarantine desk, where we submitted our health declaration form. He came to visit LA in March, right before the lockdown. This was in August, before Myanmar’s overwhelming second wave, and he was positive that things were going to be okay.
“Our people followed the orders from the government well,” the monk told me. “Myanmar has only 300 plus positive cases, that was way less than the daily infection rate in Florida.”
I was also feeling confident, especially after what I had seen in the United States, where there were protests against masks and stay-at-home rules.
I missed Yangon even if there were not many things left to love about it. It is still a beautiful city after being neglected and left to rot by the former military regime. Diverse ethnic groups live there, and you can sample food from any part of the country with only a short taxi ride. Monuments from Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism coexist and stand tall despite the ongoing persecution of religious minorities. Millions of migrants flock to the city every year, dreaming of bettering their lives, starting a family, or maybe striking it rich. To me it is home.
I met a 34-year-old Myanmar sailor named Ko Ko Oo on the last leg home from Seoul to Yangon. He was gathered at the gate along with other seafarers, tourists, students, scholars, and migrant workers. His face could barely be seen as it was hidden under a mask and goggles, and his whole body was fully covered in white personal protective equipment (PPE). He had disembarked from his ship in mid-July and waited for 28 days to get on this flight. He explained to me that he wanted to be safe.
“There is nothing sure about the virus. I can’t know what is happening inside my body, although I feel healthy,” he said.
In about five hours we were approaching Yangon. It was evening. The sun had just set. The blinking lights of small houses started to appear through the window. From above it looked so different from all the other major cities I had flown into during my time in the U.S.
Some Yangon immigration officials might normally be chewing betel nut and spitting into a plastic bag. But no one was doing that then, which made me think they were taking the pandemic seriously. The airport was empty. Only the arrival hall and the immigration area were lit up. The rest of the terminal was in the dark. We were divided into groups for the quarantine hotel buses. The driver was wearing a full PPE suit and playing a local radio channel like it was just another day on the job. Yangon traffic was light. Some people even gazed up at our unusual convoy as if we were VIPs, which I guess we were given the situation.
Family members and friends waited outside of the hotel to deliver food as we arrived nearly at midnight. It had been five months since I said goodbye to my mom at the airport in LA in March, when she had come for a visit, but I hadn't seen my dad since the day I left Yangon.
When I saw him in front of the hotel, he tried to come closer, but I had to tell him to stay back a safe distance.
We were ushered into our rooms, and Myanmar’s 21-day quarantine period started in a hotel a few minutes’ walk from my family’s apartment.
The room on the 9th floor was dusty and only had a single window that looked out onto a wall of another building with some vines creeping up it. But the space was pretty big and there was air-conditioning. I thought this was going to be the last and hardest part of my long trip back home as I had never imagined isolating myself in a hotel room for three weeks. Officials also seemed nervous about details of the place being published. When I tried to film my first swab test I was told to stop.
My family delivered lunch and dinner, and a bellhop wearing a mask, gloves, and face shield would take it to my room. After a few days, I started to feel weak and dizzy because I didn’t have enough sunshine. When I opened the window, all I could see was the back wall of that building. I tried working out but the room was not big enough and I was not in the mood. The Wi-Fi also wasn’t great. I spent hours in bed doing nothing. I got up to eat and went back to bed. My sleeping routine was erratic. This small room became my world.
I didn’t realize that things were about to get worse. Local transmission cases were starting to rise at alarming rates. After testing negative on the final swab test, I left the hotel on the morning of Sept. 2.
Yangon streets were not as empty as I expected. But I heard sirens from ambulances constantly. I still lived with my parents and siblings in an 8-story building with no elevator. Our apartment is on the 7th floor. I felt too exhausted to make the trek up but there was no other option.
My mother cooked a usual Burmese lunch with a lot of vegetables and curries that I had with her and my siblings. My dad left for work importing fabrics from China and Thailand. I was worried about my parents. They were in their 50s and had some underlying health conditions that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19. I bought extra masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfectant sprays. We put a trash can at the doorstep that was filled with disinfectant liquids, where we disposed of our masks. When we came home, we took a shower straight away. We sprayed cash with disinfectant and put them in sealed plastic bags we kept on the balcony overnight.
After the seven days of mandated home isolation, the last part of my quarantine ended. I started getting busy with freelance assignments about the pandemic and Myanmar’s election on Nov. 8. I had been worried that I wouldn’t make it home in time to cover the historic vote, which is a crucial test for leader and former human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi after her party first won in a landslide five years ago, ending decades of military-backed rule. But her administration has struggled to live up to expectations at home and abroad, where her reputation is in tatters over the handling of the Rohingya crisis.
I decided to have an office-like apartment where I planned to isolate myself and work because I was the only one leaving home. Some of my colleagues joined me. The rest of my family rarely went out after the surge in cases. Businesses were shutting down, a curfew order was still active, domestic travel was already banned, and finally, authorities imposed a lockdown in Yangon. We were not even allowed to travel from one township to another without official permission.
Then, as I was filming an interview with some political candidates, I got a call from home saying my dad was sick. In a few days, he had developed severe COVID-19 symptoms and was having trouble breathing. We were reluctant to go to the hospital because he would be without us while isolating with other coronavirus patients. But the next day, he was so sick we had to call an ambulance.
None of us realized that this was going to be the biggest struggle our family would ever have to face.
They admitted our father to a hospital in Yangon but I had to continue isolating myself as the designated runner. My family needed me outside so that I could deliver them food or medicine, as they did for me when I was in quarantine.
Luckily, my sister was allowed to stay with our dad in the hospital and we, as a family, chatted on Facebook Messenger every night. We made jokes and tried to pretend that it was nothing serious. In reality, my dad had to share a room with three other patients who could also be positive cases. My sister slept on a plastic mat on the floor. There was no toilet in the isolation ward so we had to buy them a portable seat for my dad. My sister did not have access to the hospital bathroom for more than 72 hours. Nurses and doctors were outside the ward, separated by a glass wall and they showed up only twice in a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. It was like they were abandoned in the ward.
On his second day in the hospital, my father underwent a swab test and X-ray. All the other patients in his room tested positive, but my dad’s oxygen dropped to critical levels by the evening and we struggled to get more oxygen tanks from hospital staff. His condition improved once we got some, even chatting with other patients in the ward.
Then he started coughing blood. They said they couldn’t move him to the ICU at first, as they were understaffed, but they eventually did. At midnight, my dad’s lab result came back. That’s when we knew for sure: he was positive for the coronavirus. I told my mom to go to sleep and lied to her that the situation was getting better. I was on video call with my sister until 5 a.m. I watched our dad trying to breathe better and was hopeful he would make it and be back home in a few days.
But when I woke up the next morning to send him food and medicine, my sister called and said he had died. He didn’t survive the 20-minute gap between changing oxygen tanks. It was 10 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 28. He was 57 years old.
I went to the hospital to claim his death certificate, a requirement for the funeral service, but the staff I first spoke with were of little help. They said they didn’t have the details about how to get it. My patience finally snapped and I shouted at them. I let all my frustrations from the past few days out. Some doctors comforted me as I complained.
At the morgue, four people in full PPE walked towards me. I remembered my trip home. This time the people in white suits were not carrying boxes of food, but my dad in a zipped body bag.
Riding with my brother-in-law and a friend, we followed the ambulance to an Islamic cemetery in the suburb of Yangon that was reserved for those who died of COVID-19.
My mother and siblings were under quarantine, so they watched the service through a video call, as volunteers in PPE buried our father. I stood about 50 feet away from the grave and a few feet from others on the site.
It is a few days before the election now as I finished writing this. On Sunday, I will be up early, out covering the polls, doing interviews, filing quotes and videos. I hope that the new administration will take some lessons from the pandemic. I don’t know if a better health system would have saved my father, but it might have. The new government should focus on dramatically improving healthcare in the country, putting more money into it, and training up the next generation of doctors and nurses. We can do better.
Aung Naing Soe
This story was originally published in Vice.com.