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A man walks past shuttered shops, closed early due to the ongoing political situation in Yangon, Myanmar, on April 2, 2021.STR/AFP/Getty Images

The number of impoverished people in Myanmar has doubled since last year, the United Nations estimates, a stark reflection of the tumult and hardship visited upon a country hit by a coup amid a pandemic.

Before the onset of COVID-19, surveys showed one in four people in Myanmar lived in poverty. Now, modeling by the UN indicates that number has rapidly increased, both because of the effects of the virus and the devastating economic impact of the coup.

“We think it may have gone from roughly a quarter to roughly a half,” said Andrew Kirkwood, the most senior UN official currently in the country. A full analysis will be released in the coming days, he said in an interview Friday.

But it’s clear “people are very much struggling.”

Ports, rail and trucking services have largely gone on strike amid widespread fury over the return of military rule. Many banks have closed, and most ATMs have gone dry. International missions – including Canada’s – have begun to evacuate people because of safety concerns. “Non-essential staff and their families have been ordered to leave Myanmar,” said John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, in a statement. The UN is moving about 300 family members of international staff out of the country, although the vast majority of its people will remain.

But the primary concern is the country’s populace of 54 million. The military has now killed more than 600 people – 90 per cent of them by gunshot, mostly to the head – in an effort to stamp out broad opposition to the coup. Almost 3,000 have been arrested. The rising death count and the civil disobedience demonstrations have put a stop to much of the country’s normal function.

“A lot of people haven’t received a paycheque since January. Economic activity is really grinding to a halt,” said Mr. Kirkwood, a Canadian who has lived in Myanmar since 2004, when he began work as local director of aid agency Save the Children. He later joined the United Nations Office for Project Services and has been the UN’s acting resident and humanitarian co-ordinator since the coup on Feb. 1.

One of the primary tasks for the UN in Myanmar at the moment, he said, is “planning for what we think will be a much larger humanitarian crisis.”

With large numbers of workers losing their jobs in garment and textile factories, “we think hundreds of thousands have gone back to their rural homes,” he said. The World Bank has forecast a 10-per-cent contraction in Myanmar’s economy this year.

After military air strikes in southeastern Karen state, thousands have also fled to Thailand, in what Mr. Kirkwood described as “the potential beginnings of a new refugee crisis.”

Meanwhile, the potential for deadly conflict is growing. Myanmar has for decades remained locked in the world’s longest-running civil war. While violence had receded in recent years, numerous ethnic groups maintain militias, and some have talked about uniting in the form of a national army – discussions that have raised the prospect of open war.

Myanmar “is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state,” UN special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener warned the UN Security Council last week. She is currently in Thailand trying to organize talks with the military regime.

Meanwhile, the public-health system across Myanmar has “virtually collapsed,” Mr. Kirkwood said. “There are a million infants that need routine vaccinations. And those have stopped.” COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations have dramatically slowed, in part because health care workers and ordinary people refuse to accept vaccines from the military regime. “So there are many parts of this looming crisis,” Mr. Kirkwood said.

Supermarkets remain open, but food is growing more difficult to purchase in parts of Yangon, the largest city, which has been placed under martial law.

Before the coup, the UN was providing humanitarian assistance to a million people in the country. The need for help has increased, Mr. Kirkwood said, but so have the obstacles to providing it, particularly with trucking and port services crippled by strikes.

He called on countries such as Canada to remain vigilant about the situation in Myanmar.

“This is a really profoundly historic moment for the country,” he said. “What’s needed is for the international community to come together and pressure military authorities to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms – and find a negotiated way out of the crisis.”

Among the greatest fears for people in Myanmar is “that they are forgotten in this really existential struggle,” he added. “And I suppose that’s the big plea to the Canadians. It might feel easier to just walk away. But now is definitely not the time to abandon the people of the country for the actions of the military leaders over whom they have absolutely no control.”

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