By Shoon Naing
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar plans to push ahead with a November general election despite calls from opposition parties to postpone it because of a surge in novel coronavirus cases, officials said.
The Southeast Asian country reported 671 new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, its highest daily toll since the beginning of its outbreak in March, taking its total to 5,541 infections and 92 deaths.
Myanmar had gone weeks without a case of local transmission before an outbreak in August in the western region of Rakhine that has spread across the country.
Analysts say the Nov. 8 election is a test of the extent of Myanmar's democratic reforms.
Parties halted campaigning in the commercial capital of Yangon on Monday after authorities imposed a citywide lockdown, forcing the majority of its five million residents to work from home in the toughest measure yet to combat the virus.
But the polls will go ahead, the national election commission told reporters.
"We don't have a plan to postpone the election for the reason of COVID-19," Myint Naing, a senior commission official told an online briefing on the weekend.
He said the number of polling stations would be increased from 40,000 to 50,000, to avoid overcrowding, staff would wear protective gear and voters would be told to wash their hands.
"We have arranged the situation so that there's nothing to worry about," he said.
Monywa Aung Shin, a senior official from the ruling National League for Democracy party, told Reuters he believed the election would make no difference to the trajectory of the pandemic.
"It is better to face the danger," he said.
Last week, 24 parties sent a letter to the election commission urging it to reconsider the polls.
"As a party that looks after the interests of the people, we suggested the commission consider moving the date," Nandar Hla Myint, a spokesman for the military-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party, which proposed the delay, told Reuters.
Political analyst Yan Myo Thein said parties were moving their campaigns onto social media platforms because of the pandemic but needed more time to organise.
"Many voters are in remote areas and it is difficult to know how much access they have to online campaigns," he said.
Moe Kyaw, the secretary of the Arakan League for Democracy, one of the major parties in Rakhine State, which has been in lockdown for weeks, said candidates were unable to visit voters because of the restrictions.
"COVID is limiting our ability to campaign," Moe Kyaw told Reuters by telephone.
There are also internet curbs in parts of the state because of fighting between government troops and ethnic minority insurgents.
Yangon was quiet on Monday with markets and malls shuttered. Some people praised the government for its measures to curb the virus.
"The situation would be uncontrollably chaotic if the rules were not tight enough,” said resident Win Myint.
(Reporting by Shoon Naing. Additional reporting by Thu Thu Aung and Zaw Naing Oo; Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Robert Birsel)