Now the world is getting used to COVID-19 and many countries are announcing a new policy called “Living with COVID”. Now we are too. I will explain….
On March 17, 2022, Pa-Auk Pyin Oo Lwin literally started to live with COVID. On that day, there were 5 monks that were sick and tested positive. When lunch came, we were on high alert. Massive testing happened within the next few days and we went from 12 positive cases to 25 and then to 35 and now we are at 50 cases for the male size and 15 for the female side only one week later. It spreads quickly but I think the increase of numbers will go down. I have succeeded in testing negative for 2 tests in one week thus far.
On April 1, 2022, we will “celebrate” 2 years of strict lockdown. We started earlier, but that was when things got really serious and the 200 or so construction workers with their families were asked to leave. Time has gone by very quickly and the population of the monastery has slowly been reduced to about half its size. Visas have been shut down by the government1There is a report that visas will open again in mid April, 2022, so if you leave the country, you cannot come back. Furthermore, if you have medical needs and leave the monastery for a local visit to the doctor or dentist, you must spend 3 weeks in strict quarantine upon returning, which I had to do for my doctor’s visit. One monk needed all of his wisdom teeth pulled and since he had to do each tooth separately, he opted to just go back to Vietnam rather than do three months of quarantine periods.
We don’t know exactly how COVID came into the monastery. We did have some breaches of the lockdown in the past, and it is very likely it has happened again. Other theories exist with some food, package or construction deliveries. The lockdown was not perfect, but it worked for 2 years when variants and conditions were much worse for Myanmar.
We have taken precautions before this, by wearing masks and gloves when we come to take our food in the Piṇḍapāta line. We also wear masks when we come together for patimokkha on Uposatha Days. Perhaps things would be much worse if we did not take these precautions. However, when we were not in these group situations, the masks would come off for most who wanted them off. In this way, those who wanted to be safe could be safe, while others could breathe in peace. In addition to these precautions, the monastery was isolated by a lockdown.
Now that we are “Living with COVID”, our Piṇḍapāta line is reduced to pre-made packets for all residents. We just “take and go” without regard for seniority to avoid contact. Since all packs are the same, there is no need to worry about seniority.
When the first news of COVID appeared, I told the doctor and admin monks that I would volunteer for helping the sick because I wanted to flip my fear into loving-kindness. Since nobody got sick in nearly two years, I was never called on that “offer”. However, after the first cases appeared, I renewed my offer to help the sick. So far, the cases are quite mild because of the variant and since 50% of us were already vaccinated, with the elderly boosted. So, there is no need for in-person helping of the sick. The kitchen staff was hit hard, so we have less staff to drop off food so I’m delivering food for ten (eight bhikkhus, one novice monk, and one kappiya (lay helper)). Other monks are lending a hand as well where needed.
It is not much of a big deal for me, but I do know that there are risks involved. I’m very happy to help and it brings me much joy to deliver 2 meals each day. I have recruited an Indian monk to help me with carrying the heavy loads in the morning, and he recently made a hot drink shuttle. However, hot drinks have been put on hold and we only got to use the shuttle two times so far.
Our Sayadawgyi who is susceptible for complications has tested negative and he is in a separate quarantine group with those who take care of him. Hopefully, we will get through this without any problems and things will get back to normal. Will Pa-Auk have a real “Living with COVID policy” after this all blows over? I doubt it. For now, the lockdown continues.