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Responding to COVID-19 in Conflict-Ridden Myanmar

Within days of the first COVID-19 case being confirmed in Myanmar on 23 March, Nelson (Htun Htun) Naing mobilized his company to set up an official COVID-19 hotline helping people to easily access reliable information. Naing, a YPO member, is Chairman and Group CEO of Blue Ocean, the country’s leading information and communications technology (ICT) company with the largest call centers.

“Myanmar has historically been a closed country with limited information sources, which makes it difficult for people to collect up-to-date and reliable news,” says Naing, who recognized that his established call center business could play a role in raising awareness of the pandemic among a population of 53 million. “By mid-March, people started panicking, calling health care centers for more information, and I knew that the public service could not handle all these inquiries. There were also a lot of rumors circulating, including through social media channels such as Facebook, which is very popular in the urban centers.”

But it was in rural areas, particularly in the conflict-ridden areas with no access to the internet, where Naing recognized the greatest need for a singular reliable source of information. “Seventy-five percent of the population live in the countryside, with limited accessibility to the internet for prevention and health care education, in a country where the ratio between doctors and patients is 1 to 3,500,” he adds.

Getting out the message

To get information about disease prevention and how to access medical treatment to millions of people, Naing knew he needed government support. With the help of a fellow YPO member Zaw Moe Khine, Managing Director at AA Medical Products Ltd, he was able to connect with the Ministry of Health and Sports.

“The ministry welcomed the idea. I then called all the four major mobile operators and convinced them to join hands to reach an estimated 58 million mobile subscribers,” says Naing. “We chose one easy short code, 2019, and within 12 days, we completed the technical setup and operation, as well as the training of the team, many of whom had gone back to their towns during the home stay and pandemic.”

The free-of-charge calls involved live consultations with 70 doctors and health specialists.

In April alone, 5.5 million calls were made. Early May continued to see an increase in numbers, although the lockdown is expected to ease in June. The most frequently asked questions include prevention and treatment, as well as quarantine guidelines for people returning to Myanmar after traveling outside the country, primarily the thousands of migrant workers coming home from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

“In this once-of-a-lifetime pandemic, we have a golden opportunity to help people.” Nelson (Htun Htun) Nain, Chairman & Group CEO Blue Ocean

Navigating geo-political challenges

For Naing, one of the biggest challenges has been communicating with the diverse ethnic groups. “We have 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, so we need to provide (at least) seven ethnic languages to reach out to all ethnic groups from rural areas,” he explains.

In addition, Naing warns of the risks that the cyclone season, which typically begins in May, will introduce other major public health challenges such as influenza and malaria, which could further strain the health care system.

Meanwhile, despite international calls for a ceasefire, the country is still experiencing conflict between ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar military.

While navigating the challenges, Naing is committed to continue operating the call center for as long as needed to protect the safety of vulnerable segments of society. “We will continue for six months or a year if required, paying from our own pockets and through donations from private sector and volunteers,” he adds.

An opportunity to create impact

His experience the past few weeks as a project leader and technical partner has left him with a sense of pride and accomplishment. “Personally, I feel very happy that I have been able to serve five million in April alone, helping keep them safe and informed.”

Naing is not alone in giving back to the community. Since the spread of the pandemic in the country, many YPO members in Yangon generously have donated ventilators, testing machines and personal protective equipment (PPE).

“In this kind of once-of-a-lifetime pandemic, we have a golden opportunity to help people. Even a business like mine has been able to impact millions,” he adds.

For more crisis leadership stories like these, check out the COVID-19: Leading Through Crisis page on YPO.org. All YPO members can find breaking news, offer insights and view current discussions happening about COVID-19 impact within the YPO community on the YPO member-only platform.

Rola Tassabehji began her career as a marketing trainee in Unilever Arabia and from there moved into several management roles within the marketing and communications function in Unilever global and regional teams, including brand development manager, Dove, Unilever Africa, Middle East, and Turkey and communications manager, Unilever North Africa and Middle East. Following ten years with Unilever, she relocated to Abu Dhabi, U.A.E and joined the team that launched INSEAD campus in the Middle East as external relations director. Rola completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Canada, has a Masters degree from the American University of Beirut and a post graduate degree in journalism from London School of Journalism.