COVID-19 outbreaks in Myanmar jails sow alarm as cases hit record

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July 8 (Reuters) - Forty prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 in Myanmar's main jail housing some of the thousands of anti-coup protesters who have been arrested by the junta, BBC Burmese language news reported on Thursday, citing a prison official.

A spokesman for Insein jail in Yangon did not answer calls from Reuters seeking comment on the report.

Authorities at the colonial-era jail have stopped sending prisoners to attend court hearings either at a special facility inside the jail or to courts in the city, Zayar Lwin, an activist and former political prisoner who was freed from Insein in April, told Reuters.

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The BBC report said authorities at jails in other parts of the country, including in Myaungmya and Taungoo, were also taking action to contain the spread of the virus.

The Southeast Asian nation is in the midst of its most serious wave of infections to date and reported a record 4,132 new cases on Thursday and 52 deaths - up from an average of only a few dozen cases and a few deaths a day in late May.

Efforts to manage the crisis have been hampered as the country descended into turmoil after the military overthrew a democratically elected civilian government on Feb. 1, leading to daily protests, strikes and armed clashes in parts of Myanmar.

Many prisoners in Insein jail became sick and some died earlier during the pandemic, but there was little COVID-19 testing, Zaya Lwin said.

"I don't know about whether they are now testing the prisoners who are inside or not," he said.

In a bid to contain the virus, stay at home orders have been issued for parts of Yangon as well in Chin State and in the Sagaing Region, the state Myanmar News Agency reported.

Many of the new infections have been from Chin State near the border with India, with the local Chin World news agency reporting 500 people had died of COVID-19 inside a month.

Some health experts say Myanmar's real rate of infection is likely to be far higher given a collapse in testing since the coup.

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Reporting by Reuters Staff Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Giles Elgood

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