UNOPS support to Myanmar during the pandemic

UNCT in Myanmar moved quickly to ensure its programmes could respond to the health and economic impact on the country’s most vulnerable people.

When the COVID-19 virus outbreak occurred early this year, the United Nations Country Team in Myanmar moved quickly to ensure its programmes could respond to the health and economic impact on the country’s most vulnerable people. 

In the case of UNOPS, that meant working quickly with its funding partners to ensure they were brought into plans to help meet the goals set down by the Myanmar Government: “Flatten the curve, without flattening the economy.’’ 

UNOPS called it ‘’pivoting” – shifting some funding to deal directly with COVID -19 needs. In total, US$63.6 million has been “pivoted” to the COVID-19 response, roughly half for the health response and half for mitigating the economic impact.

The UN system which includes more than 20 agencies in Myanmar worked together to ensure there was no waste or duplication, and that emergency supplies and relief efforts were getting where they were needed most.

Each part of the United Nations has its particular specialty. UNOPS has more than 400 staff in Myanmar, who are seen as the project and fund management and infrastructure experts of the UN, supporting humanitarian, development, and peace activities across the country. 

Reliable healthcare in times of crisis

UNOPS support to Myanmar’s health response has been led by the Access to Health Fund and the Global Fund which have so far committed US$31 million, focusing on procurement of emergency supplies and essential health services. To-date more than 100,000 test kits, 220,000 full sets of personal protective equipment, 2 million surgical masks and more than 50,000 N95 masks have been delivered. Equipment for laboratory operations and expanding testing capacity has also been procured. Partners have also supported Myanmar’s response to COVID-19 through activities in risk communications, infection control, surveillance, contact tracing, referral and testing.

Access to Health has also helped to expand services to the hardest-to-reach, most vulnerable populations, who often reside in areas that are conflict-affected or outside of government control. This has included support through implementing partners to ethnic health organizations and ethnic community-based organizations (EHOs/ECBHOs) who are critical providers of health services in Myanmar’s border and non-government areas. 

Access to Health has also made available a new grant fund of US$1 million for small grants to local civil society organizations, including those from faith agencies and not-for-profit groups , for COVID-19 response activities. These grants help services and activities to reach into places where other actors may not be able to go, and can improve trust in health services thanks to existing connections and shared language and culture. They support COVID-19 response activities in conflict-affected townships as well as areas with large numbers of migrants. 

The Access to Health Fund is supported by four donors - the United Kingdom, Sweden, United States and Switzerland.

Maintaining critical health services

While tackling the pandemic, UNOPS had to make sure control efforts for other diseases were not neglected, and the provision of life saving services continued, uninterrupted by COVID-19. This includes US$10.5 million of funding under the COVID-19 Response Mechanism (C19 RM), recently approved by the Global Fund, to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria and support health and community systems in Myanmar for this and next year. 

A biosafety level-3 TB laboratory was inaugurated in Myanmar’s Mon state on 19 June with the support of the Global Fund. This lab will contribute to earlier and faster detection of tuberculosis. The opening of this lab will also support the testing and diagnosing of COVID-19 and help scale-up testing capacity in Myanmar. 

Access to Health partners also maintained, wherever possible, services in the areas of maternal, newborn and child health and sexual and reproductive health and rights, including attention to training and referrals for gender-based violence in recognition of its potential increase during periods of lockdown. Continuation of these services is essential to preventing maternal and child mortality, and maintaining contraceptive prevalence and family planning.

Support to Myanmar hospitals

With US$5 million in funding from the government of Japan – part of a broader US$29 million COVID-19 response project for Asia – UNOPS is procuring COVID-19 emergency supplies and equipment for hospitals in Myanmar. This will support the country’s response efforts in three key areas: infection prevention and control, testing and surveillance, and clinic management. The project will benefit up to 240,000 people.

Funded by Norway, UNOPS Myanmar received US$200,000 to provide emergency support for the procurement of essential supplies and equipment to enable the Sittwe General Hospital in Rakhine to be prepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. The supplies have been delivered to the hospital and the equipment will be delivered between August and October 2020.

Alleviating the economic impact of COVID-19

In June, the UNOPS-managed Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) worked together with the Myanmar Government and HelpAge International to deliver US$9 million (approx. MMK12.6 billion) in social protection payments during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

More than 420,000 pregnant women, mothers and the elderly have received additional cash support to help them and their families during the pandemic. This will help ease the indirect impact on nearly 2 million people across the country.

LIFT and its implementing partners have also provided support to over 1 million migrants since the start of the pandemic. Interventions have included information distribution, hygiene supplies, personal protective equipment, critical medical equipment and materials. Direct support has also been provided to migrants who have lost their employment and/or who urgently needed to return home, including food assistance, financial support, shelter, transportation and legal aid. 

LIFT is funded by the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, Switzerland, United States, Canada and Ireland and its COVID-19 support totals US$25.5 million. 

Civil society response

Civil society organisations (CSOs) have been instrumental to response efforts. Local organizations already work on the ‘frontline’, they have extensive local knowledge, relationships and networks across wide geographic areas and at all levels of administration, from grassroots through to the national level. More than 80 per cent of LIFT’s response activity has been undertaken by local partners who access villages, factories, quarantine centres, camps and border-gates that staff from international organizations cannot reach.

Innovative currency hedging for financial inclusion

Through the LIFT fund, US$3 million is being used to hedge currency exchange risks for private investors who want to invest in local microfinance institutions (MFIs). Government restrictions mean that MFIs have not been able to collect loan payments, thereby reducing their ability to lend to SMEs. The currency hedging is expected to leverage US$60 million in new foreign investment in MFIs. In turn, this will enable the MFIs to support up to 600,000 households and small businesses affected by COVID-19.

Supporting garment sector workers

The European Union has provided a US$5.7 million emergency fund to help garment workers who have lost their jobs due to the economic impact of COVID-19. The fund is financed through the UNOPS-managed EU Nexus Response for Myanmar. As of 20 July, the “Myan Ku” initiative had distributed payments totalling US$1.979.510 to 36,387 garment workers, mainly women. 

Despite the new challenges created by the need to respond to COVID-19, UNOPS Myanmar has been able keep on track all of its pre-COVID-19 projects to continue to help the UN and its partners to provide peace and security, humanitarian and development solutions, and remain true to the UNOPS mission: ‘’Help people build better lives and countries achieve peace and sustainable development.’’

Caption: Worker employed by a small-enterprise in Rakhine engaged in face mask production for Sittwe General Hospital.
Caption: Ms. Kyawt Kay Khaing and her husband both lost their garment factory jobs in February. She used the financial assistance from the EU Nexus response for Myanmar Myan Ku Fund to open a small shop in their community, which is so far successful.
UN entities involved in this initiative
UNOPS
United Nations Office for Project Services