'Not scared of the virus', Myanmar taxi driver's pilgrimage to a sacred pagoda

YANGON (Reuters) - Defying the threat of contracting coronavirus and a citywide lockdown, Myanmar taxi driver Ko Naing, 50, still travels each day to pray outside the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the country’s holiest Buddhist site.

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“I’m not scared of the virus because I feel protected by my religion and regular praying at the pagoda,” he told Reuters, kneeling at the front gate of the pagoda.

The number of COVID-19 infections in Myanmar, which has one of the world’s weakest health systems, has surged from a few hundred in mid-August to more than 27,000 cases and 646 deaths as of Monday.

The country of 53 million people has locked down its biggest city, Yangon, and imposed a broad stay-at-home order across the whole city to stop the virus from spreading.

The glittering Shwedagon pagoda, which has cast its golden light over the city for centuries, shut its doors in April for an extended period for the first time in recent history, disrupting a long tradition of regular pilgrimages by devotees.

Yet while many are making do with broadcasts by the pagoda’s monks on Facebook, Ko Naing rises at dawn each morning to stand outside its locked gates, lighting incense sticks and risking penalties for breaching the COVID lockdown.

“Other people get in trouble but I don’t. Why? Because I believe in my religion and Buddha,’ he said.

The Southeast Asian nation is housing more than 45,000 people, including COVID-19 patients as well as those yet to be tested, their close contacts and returning migrant workers, in buildings from schools and monasteries to government offices and tower blocks, mostly run by volunteers.

The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called on the public to help combat the virus.

Suu Kyi has also said Myanmar’s general election, due on Nov. 8, must go ahead and is “more important than COVID”.

(The story corrects fifth paragraph to clarify Shwedagon pagoda shut for ‘extended period’ in April, not shut ‘in April’, for first time in recorded history).

Reporting by Zaw Naing Oo; Editing by Shri Navaratnam