As COVID-19 has already caused more than 70,000 deaths worldwide, the Myanmar Authorities have to prepare for the worst. While the number of confirmed cases in the country is still low - 21 people had tested positive by the 6th of April 20202 - other Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have already reported thousands of cases each.
Detention conditions are known to greatly exacerbate the risks of contagious diseases: the World Health Organization (WHO) considers that prisoners are 100 times more likely to contract Tuberculosis (TB) than the civilian population, and are disproportionately affected by malnutrition, HIV and hepatitis.4 The rapid spread of COVID-19 prompted the WHO to warn Governments about the especially acute risks posed by potential outbreaks in prisons and other detention facilities.5 Their recommendations are especially relevant for Myanmar, as the country’s prisons operate at an average 140% of their maximum occupancy capacity and are therefore seriously overcrowded.
Potential outbreaks of COVID-19 in Myanmar prisons directly threaten the health of thousands of inmates, prison personnel and their respective families. These could also result in deadly spillover of the virus into neighbouring communities. Moreover, the greater vulnerability of prisoners to infection could rapidly lead to mounting tensions, unrest and security concerns within prisons.
Earlier this month, riots prompted by COVID-19 fears erupted in prisons in Italy, Colombia and India, resulting in dozens of deaths, injuries and escapes. 7 In an unprecedented move aimed at reducing prison overcrowding and preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in detention facilities, Australia, the USA, France, the UK, Ireland, Iran, Bahrain, Afghanistan, India and Indonesia all announced the early release of large numbers of prisoners considered to pose a low risk for public safety.
Myanmar prison authorities have started to take preventive measures such as the provision of hand soap and basins for visitors. 9 The procurement of infection control equipment is reportedly also under way. While these are positive steps, it is urgent that the Myanmar Government and relevant Departments and Authorities adopt a more comprehensive plan to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks in the country’s detention facilities. These include prisons, but also labour camps, police stations, juvenile camps and closed drug treatment and rehabilitation centres, including those in conflict-affected areas.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) requested earlier this month, among other measures, a mass amnesty for prisoners meeting specific criteria.10 Signatories of this declaration join their call for action. A set of key recommendations and priority interventions is proposed below. These, however, should not be considered exhaustive.
1. Release prisoners who represent a low risk for public safety to reduce overcrowding.
2. Suspend all arrests and new admissions into prisons for non-violent offences
3. Enhance preventive measures inside prisons to reduce the risks of transmission among and between inmates and prison personnel
4. Enhance access to medical services for prisoners and prison personnel