Sudden Swing in Pandemic Hammers Burma’s Poor

Burma (Myanmar) saw a dramatic upswing in COVID-19 cases in September, and the ensuing lockdowns further hammered the poor and the local missionaries serving them – even as workers were bringing more people to faith in Christ.

Officially Burma had recorded just 353 coronavirus cases in early August. The cases were considered to be greatly undercounted, but nevertheless the figure stood in deep contrast with the 2,265 cases recorded by Sept. 11. By Sept. 27, the country reported 10,734 COVID-19 cases, including 226 deaths.

“The situation now looks darker in the days ahead,” the leader of a native ministry said. “The government had already locked down many towns, and prices went up immediately. People are in great fear for the days ahead.”

In a country where 83 percent of workers toil in the informal sector as street vendors, day-laborers and the like – leaving them dependent on daily income to survive – the leader said COVID-19 restrictions have blocked area residents from going to rivers to fish or forests to find bamboo and wood.

“There are many times when people can’t find rice to buy even if they can afford it.”

“Fishing and forestry are the ways they find their daily food, and in some places, villagers are not allowed to work at their paddy fields,” he said. “The land roads and river routes have been blocked for almost a year. Prices have gone up two or three times. There are many times when people can’t find rice to buy even if they can afford it; days and months go by when they can’t obtain food, and they are in a real struggle.”

The leader said relief efforts by the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross, local Non-Governmental Organizations and his own ministry were unable to keep pace with growing needs. Initially native ministry churches were able to collect offerings and provide the needy with food and clothing, but after months of church closures, ministry workers and those they were serving are in great need, he said.

“We praise God that we could provide help through our local contributions and your generosity for the first few months to workers and members, but the needs are great,” the leader wrote to Christian Aid Mission. “Many of our ministry’s churches struggle to survive, to meet their needs and the needs of their pastors. We have 60 pastors, and about 30 of them have been impacted by COVID-19 and church closures. Pastors are in great need.”

War Displaced

The pandemic threatens to starve people in Burma, where 24.8 percent of the population is poor; another 33 percent were reportedly on the verge of dropping below the poverty line even before the novel coronavirus struck.

Local churches that used to contribute to the ministry’s drug rehabilitation center are no longer able to do so at a time when expansion allowed the center to take 20 new addicts, the leader said.

“We depend so much on the contributions of nearby churches and their members, but at this time we need help for our rehab center,” he said. “We would like to have the resources to get at least 10 bags of rice and daily necessities for two months.”

At the same time, local missionaries are working in areas where rebel groups are fighting government forces. The conflict has left many people hungry, injured and displaced, he said.

“Many villages have been abandoned, burned or, for security reasons, people are not allowed to live in them anymore – they need to flee for their lives,” the leader said. “The internally displaced people include some of our church planters, pastors and members.”

The ministry made shelters for some of the displaced persons and has provided them food and other basic necessities, along with sharing the message of Christ’s salvation in a country with a population that is 88 percent Buddhist. With resources gone, however, workers offer only spiritual food, the leader said.

“Now, we disciple them and bring them God’s word for comfort,” he said. “The need is great, but our God is greater. We believe He will provide according to His riches in Christ Jesus.”

Gospel Spread

The leader of another ministry based in Burma said his teams are suffering similar lack.

“Our missionaries and mission church members have been facing survival difficulties,” he said. “We prayed and, with any relief funds that we had, we bought bags of rice and cooking oil and distributed these to our brethren. We were able to do this three times.”

Besides grounded airline flights and road closures in towns and outlying areas, on Sept. 21 Yangon, the country’s largest city, went into lockdown. As COVID-19 cases began to spread earlier in the month, officials had already ordered partial lockdowns in 29 of Yangon’s 44 townships. In the capital city of Naypyidaw, new roadblocks went up on some smaller streets while main thoroughfares remained open.

The ministry leader said that, during lockdown, he is supervising Bible translations in seven languages, and his translators have been able to continue work in their respective homes. While stuck at home, he translates various Christian materials.

“And my gospel tracts are being distributed in this pandemic lockdown period,” he said. “Literature ministry is very useful in this crisis time.”

Though most ministry workers cannot travel to villages or cities as a group, they can still trek as individuals to do important Bible teaching and preaching in rural areas, he said.

“One of our missionaries and his friends went to a village and formed a house church of five families,” the leader said. “The area is an unreached area, and the five families are the first converted people at that village. We praise God that our missionary led four persons to Christ who took water baptism.”

Economically struggling, local missionaries are meeting spiritual and physical needs faithfully throughout the country. Please consider a donation today to encourage and support them.

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