BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar has locked down the capital of conflict-torn Rakhine State after an outbreak of a novel coronavirus strain that officials said was more infectious than that previously seen in the country.
Nineteen people have tested positive for the virus in the western region since Monday, health officials said on Friday, the first local transmission in Myanmar in months, bringing its total number of cases to 409.
Myat Htut Nyunt, deputy director at Myanmar’s department of medical research, said the type of virus was the same as a mutation detected this week in Malaysia, which has been found in Europe, North America and parts of Asia, and is thought to be more infectious.
“So we would like to inform the people that this kind of virus has a faster rate of transmission,” the official said.
The vast majority of the recent cases have been in the town of Sittwe, where officials have issued a stay-at-home order and imposed a curfew. Domestic airlines have suspended services between Sittwe and the commercial capital of Yangon.
Tens of thousands of people are living in displacement camps across Rakhine due to fighting between government troops and ethnic minority insurgents. Myanmar has curbed internet access in swathes of the region, citing security grounds.
Sittwe is also home to camps where about 100,000 Rohingya Muslims have been confined since an outbreak of violence in 2012. Rohingya are mostly denied citizenship and face strict curbs on freedom of movement and access to healthcare.
The virus outbreak risks inflaming tension between the majority Buddhist and minority Rohingya population, who have been targeted with hate speech after the detection of cases in the region.
The minority are widely derided as interlopers from neighbouring Bangladesh, despite tracing their presence in the region back centuries, and have been accused of bringing the virus across the border.
Rakhine State parliament lawmaker Kyaw Zaw Oo blamed Rohingya for the outbreak in a Facebook post, saying it was “almost 100 percent certain” that they were to blame and urged segregation between the two ethnic groups.
He could not be reached for comment.
Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya leader in one camp, said government staff had visited on Friday but conditions there were too inadequate to follow advice on social distancing and hygiene.
“It’s not OK to live here, in a small space with many people. We have always had concerns in the camp, COVID-19 or other issues. Families live in 8 foot by 10 foot or 8 foot by 14 foot rooms. Things are not going to get better.”
Editing by Angus MacSwan
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