Myanmar news anchors told to mind their language as Covid spikes

News anchors in junta-ruled Myanmar have been told to stop using the English pronunciation for Covid-19, with speculation swirling the word has been culled to ensure more positive coverage amid a deadly spike of cases.

For the previous 18 months, anchors on state-backed news programmes had used the English “Covid-19” in their reports on the virus that has rampaged across the world, and is now devastating Myanmar.

Authorities reported more than 6,000 cases on Wednesday, up from around 100 per day in early June, with hospitals across the country suffering from a lack of oxygen and doctors.

Amid the spike — and with the junta’s response being widely panned — the two syllables of the English word “nineteen” may have made for uncomfortable listening, as one anonymous post on social media pointed out.

They sound like “winning” and “beating” in Burmese respectively.  

Last week, anchors on state-backed TV’s nightly news programmes instead began referring to the virus as “COVID Sel Koe” — the Burmese word for the number.

“I heard that they changed the name as a boon because COVID 19 wins and beats the people,” one user wrote last week on Facebook.  

A senior official from the information ministry of the State Administration Council — as the junta dubs itself — denied the switch had been made to remove inauspicious sounds.  

“We used to announce the same pronunciation in Burmese and English in the past,” an information ministry official told AFP on Wednesday.

“But for a Burmese audience, we think we should change our pronunciation into Burmese accent.”

“We have no other reason.”

According to state media, authorities have already taken measures to propitiate unseen forces during the spike, urging people around the country to recite teachings of the Buddha to increase protection.

While the majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhist, many also believe in spirits, astrology and “yadaya” — magic used to ward off evil or misfortune.

“I have no idea why the authorities changed its pronunciation,” Tin Htut, a prominent sorcerer, told AFP.

“But I like it. In Burmese rhyme… COVID Sel Koe… Shey Ma Toe (not moving forward).”