Thiha, a university student in Myanmar, began experiencing coronavirus symptoms on July 10. So did his entire family. Three days later, in an effort to get fresh air and avoid infecting neighbors, Thiha’s father took some paracetamol and drove the family of five from their apartment in Yangon to an old second home outside the city.
Before embarking, they stocked up on essential supplies including an oxygen tank, multivitamins and, crucially for them, seven dozen eggs. “My family goes through a lot of eggs quickly,” Thiha said. He asked to keep his real name private for fear of backlash from Myanmar’s military junta, which took power in a coup on Feb. 1.
Last year, Thiha’s family had also self-isolated for about a month during a coronavirus outbreak, pre-purchasing eggs, milk, rice and bread in bulk. “This third wave, we bought the same things but we also caught COVID, so it’s even more important that we have eggs,” he said.
Recent weeks have seen massive surges of the coronavirus in Southeast Asia, with the fast-spreading Delta variant squeezing healthcare systems in countries including Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand, causing renewed waves of grief well into the second year of the pandemic.
In Myanmar, the military regime has occupied medical facilities and attacked healthcare workers. Resistance to the new junta has prompted large-scale walkouts from public sector jobs, leaving hospitals empty. The military has arrested striking doctors and nurses; the grassroots Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) has also left vaccines unused, as healthcare workers refuse to engage with the junta even to get the jab.
The coronavirus outbreak in Myanmar has hit a healthcare system in free-fall, prompting desperate searches for oxygen as the military curtails supplies and fires into crowds seeking to refill it outside of official means. But oxygen is not the only item in short supply. Demand for chicken eggs has risen sharply at a time when the industry was already stretched, causing prices to climb and supplies to run low.
“People are buying eggs in a hurry because there are many posts claiming that eating eggs can improve your immune system and help prevent COVID,” explained a chicken food seller and poultry farmer in the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina. She asked to remain anonymous due to similar security fears as Thiha. Eggs’ shelf life and convenience have added to their appeal while people stay home, she added.
VICE World News spoke with five people in the egg business in Myanmar. They said that a perfect storm of factors has caused supplies to fall and operating costs to rise, while the recent boom in demand amid Myanmar’s third and worst wave of the coronavirus has pushed the industry to a breaking point. The egg crisis has also added to troubles afflicting a population dealing with the fallout of the military coup, which, according to the United Nations, has pushed the economy to the brink of collapse.
Volunteers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) carry the body of a person who died from COVID-19 before their funeral at a cemetery in Mandalay on July 14, 2021. Photo: STR / AFP
Myanmar’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, and even before the coup, the egg industry was in dire straits. Pandemic-induced disruptions in the flow of goods affected markets across the board, while research published in the journal Agricultural Studies in February on the impacts of COVID-19 on Myanmar’s chicken and egg sector based on interviews with 269 farmers found that a tenth of egg farms had closed by June 2020 and that 42 percent of long-term chicken and egg farm workers had lost their jobs.
The coup sent egg problems spiraling. Political turmoil, cash flow shortages and rising fuel costs have contributed to climbing food and commodity prices generally, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP). Egg producers and sellers told VICE World News that the price of chicken feed, which is mostly imported from international conglomerates, has also been steadily rising since March as the local currency, the kyat, depreciates in value.
For Zahkung Gam, a chicken breeder in Kachin State’s Waingmaw township, the cost of feeding his stock of 12,000 hens has risen by around 40 percent in the past two months, while now is also the slow season for egg-laying. “The new chickens aren’t ready to lay eggs and the chickens that have been laying eggs aren’t able to anymore,” he said. As a result, he has reduced his sales by around one-third.
He and others interviewed by VICE World News said they had been keeping egg prices artificially low in an effort to enable their business to stay afloat, but that the COVID third wave had forced them to finally raise prices.
The owner of a convenience store and wholesale egg-selling business in Chin State’s Tedim township, a remote area near the border with India, said that supplier disruptions due to the virus had compounded upon his business woes. “COVID severely hit Chin State, so some workers and poultry farmers couldn’t work or gather eggs,” said the owner, who goes by his nickname Thang. He has limited sales to 50 eggs per household and 500 per business, compared with 2,000-2,500 per business before the outbreak, and has increased prices by around 40 percent.
As egg demand has gone up, many businesses have posted their phone numbers on a 33,000-member Facebook group dedicated to the buying and selling of various egg varieties and egg-laying chickens. The page has of late been abuzz with real-time price updates and advertisements, although several numbers were switched off, perhaps indicating sellers had run out of supply.
VICE World News did reach a representative for the well-advertised Naing Family business in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second biggest city. He said they had raised prices by around 40 percent, placed limits on sales to existing customers, and stopped accepting new ones. In Yangon, Myat Min, who sells eggs to businesses and individuals and also advertised his business on the Facebook page, said he has increased prices by around one-third and restricted individual sales to 10 eggs per person.
On July 13, Sin Phyu Taw, one of the country’s largest egg suppliers, suspended home delivery service due to staffing problems, according to its Facebook page. The company could not be reached for comment.
The egg craze has given rise to a range of humorous memes, including a man squeezing an egg out of his underpants and a stack of eggs bearing Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and other luxury brand logos, as internet users attempt to lighten the situation.
But for Myanmar’s rapidly rising numbers of people unable to afford nutritious food, the egg crisis is no laughing matter and has potentially grave implications.
Even before the pandemic, an estimated 60 percent of households couldn’t afford a nutritious diet according to the World Food Programme, which found that by the end of 2020, 80 percent of households had lost nearly half of their income during the pandemic. In April, the WFP warned that in addition to the 2.8 million people considered food insecure before the coup, 3.4 million more would face hunger in the following six months.
The Agricultural Systems journal study described eggs as “especially critical for the food and nutrition security of low-income households.”
In response to rising egg and poultry demand and prices, the military-run newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar, in a July 15 article, called on local breeders to “shift to modern breeding methods and increase the production rate.” The same day, the junta’s health ministry published a list of nutritious foods to eat instead of eggs, including peanuts, bananas and tofu.
But the advice did not stop the run on eggs. Thiha, the university student, said he and his family are trying to ration their supply while out of town. “My family will eat everything we bought so it won’t go to waste,” he said. He hoped that others would do the same so that there would be enough eggs to go around for those with fewer financial means.