Southeast Asian countries are tightening controls and stepping up screening of travelers this week as China’s neighbors brace for possible cases of novel coronavirus amid a heavy flow of Chinese tourists during Lunar Year holidays.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam have reported relatively few cases of novel coronavirus, officially termed nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization, which has infected nearly 4,500 and caused 107 deaths, mostly in China’s Hubei province, according to researchers tracking the epidemic.
But Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam share long and often porous borders with southwestern China and were grappling with large unauthorized border traffic and a growing Chinese economic presence long before the novel coronavirus infections were reported early this year.
The four countries—most of them heavily dependent on Chinese trade, investment and tourism—have halted flights from Wuhan and imposed limited quarantines on select regions, amid concerns about weak health care systems and medical personnel shortages.
In Cambodia, the confirmation of the first nCoV case Monday--a 60-year-old Chinese national in the coastal city of Sihanoukville who flew to Cambodia from Wuhan on Jan. 23--has stoked public fear.
In December, Phnom Penh announced that more than two million Chinese tourists visited the country in the first 10 months of 2019, representing nearly a quarter increase for the same period in 2018.
On Monday, Cambodian aviation authorities announced that all flights between Cambodia and Wuhan city had been cancelled, following a ban by Chinese authorities on all local and international flights to the city believed to be the source of the virus.
However, several Cambodians told RFA’s Khmer Service that Phnom Penh should go further and suspend all incoming flights to Cambodia from China, noting that the virus has already spread substantially within the country of origin.
“I am wondering why [the government] did not shut down [flights from China],” said a resident of Phnom Penh named Chan Thoeun.
Weak health sector worries
He noted that Cambodian authorities have said that some 3,000 Chinese nationals from Wuhan entered Cambodia prior to Beijing’s ban on local and international flights out of the affected Chinese city.
“Some countries are very concerned for their people and the governments stopped all flights, so why wouldn’t the Cambodian government do this?” Chan Thoeun told RFA.
Saing Vin, a staffer at a casino in Sihanoukville, a city popular with Chinese travelers, said he and many other residents had left town temporarily on Tuesday out of fear of being infected.
“I am afraid of Chinese nationals carrying the new virus into the province,” he said, reiterating the call for a suspension of Chinese flights into Cambodia.
“It’s very difficult to control the situation because our health sector has not progressed. Not even China is able to prevent the spread of the virus, which has led to many people being infected and dying.”
But Chea Aun, a spokesman for Cambodia’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Authority, told RFA that the government has no plans to suspend flights from China due to the impact such a move would have on the country’s economy.
“The nation’s transportation system is like a network of blood vessels, and if we shut down the blood vessels, our body will die,” he said, adding that “the government is taking all available measures to prevent the virus from entering the country.”
Ly Sovan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, told RFA that as of Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. local time, no cases have been confirmed in Cambodia besides that of the Chinese national announced a day earlier, who is now in “good condition” and is expected to make a full recovery.
“We have located a large number of people who were on the flight from [Wuhan]—with a particular focus on those seated next to the Chinese man who was infected—and they have since traveled to several different provinces, but we have not found anyone exhibiting symptoms yet,” he said.
Myanmar mobilizes tourism industry
In Myanmar, meanwhile, Ministry of Health and Sports officials met with hotel and tourism professionals met Monday to discuss ways to find potential carriers of the virus among tourists staying in hotels.
The ministry also ordered the Myanmar Tourism Federation to immediately report any Chinese tourists staying in Myanmar hotels have unusually high temperatures in case they are carrying the highly contagious coronavirus.
The federation says nearly 100,000 Chinese have entered Myanmar since the Lunar New Year on Jan. 25 and close to 40,000 remain inside the country now that flights from Wuhan to Myanmar have been cancelled.
Since then, Myanmar authorities have been unable to check how many of Chinese tourists are free of the deadly virus.
“It is challenging for our staff to check every single hotel for potential virus carriers, so if they suspect someone, they should call our number,” said Thet Khaing Win, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health and Sports.
“They need to know their travel history [and] should ask where they went and where they stayed,” he added. “Then, they can contact us. If your suspicions are credible, we will send an ambulance.”
Yangon region’s Health Department said it is using thermal devices to monitor the body temperature of incoming tourists, especially the Chinese.
It will be difficult to monitor visitors given that more than 1,400 hotels with over 57,000 rooms in Myanmar are registered with the Myanmar Hotel Entrepreneurs Association, said Than Htut, the association’s vice chairman.
“Sometimes, when guests fall ill, hotels try to take them to a hospital, but the guests refuse to go,” he said.
“They are unhappy when the hotel contacts local authorities without their consent,” he said. “Besides, we cannot know whether or not they came from Wuhan unless they tell us.”
Vietnam health workers under observation
Aye Aye Aung, a doctor at the Waibargi Infectious Disease Hospital in Yangon, said that while his facility has the necessary equipment for screening patients for the coronavirus, it lacks the manpower to check everybody.
“The problem is not having enough manpower if there are many patients,” he told RFA. “If the authorities are sending us a large number of patients, we need more manpower. We will ask for more staff from the regional health department.”
Authorities on Monday sent two Myanmar nationals who had returned from China via the Myanmar border town of Muse and had higher-than-normal body temperatures to a local hospital for evaluation and observation. A Chinese national who became ill and was suspected of carrying the coronavirus while in Myanmar was admitted to Nyaungshwe Township Hospital in southern Shan state.
In Hanoi, Vietnamese authorities said they are now closely watching 18 health workers who have had contact with a 10-year-old Chinese boy displaying symptoms of illness that may be related to the Wuhan coronavirus.
Vietnamese media reported that the 18 were spread over two facilities in Hai Duong province; a health clinic in Gia Loc district and Hai Duong hospital.
They reportedly all had physical contact on Jan. 26 with the patient, who was in Vietnam on a tour originating from China’s Hunan province, directly south of Hubei province where Wuhan is located.
Once it was determined that the patient had symptoms possibly related to coronavirus, he was transferred from the clinic to the hospital, then transferred to Hanoi Pediatric Hospital.
In Lao Cai province, the provincial health department reported Tuesday that four Vietnamese nationals have been quarantined and are under close watch after returning to Vietnam from China through the Lao Cai border gate.
The four were detected by thermal scanners that had been set up at immigration counters at the border crossing. They all work in China or frequently travel there to do business with Chinese entrepreneurs.
The health department said that dozens of potentially nCoV-infected foreign citizens, of both Chinese and third country origin, have been detected by temperature scanners and refused entry into Vietnam.
The health department in Quang Nam province reported on the same day that a potentially infected Vietnamese woman was placed in quarantine and is under close watch. The 29-year-old flight attendant had traveled to Shanghai between Jan. 18-20.
She had begun showing signs of fever on Jan. 24 and was hospitalized two days later in Nui Thanh district. A medical sample was sent to the Nha Trang Pasteur Institute for testing.
‘People are very afraid right now’
Starting Jan 28, Lao Cai and Khanh Hoa provinces and the city of Danang have officially barred entry to Chinese tourists. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has ordered the establishment of a task force to contain the spread of nCoV.
Lao authorities have issued a gag order to two Lao students in Wuhan currently in quarantine, one of the students told RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday.
Both students told RFA Monday that they while under quarantine they are allowed only to go out to buy food once per day, and that they were very scared and worried.
After a meeting with Lao officials Tuesday, one of the students said that they were no longer allowed to talk to reporters.
Laos’ education minister told local media Tuesday that there were many Lao students stranded in China but that none are infected with nCoV.
Meanwhile many Chinese in Laos have foregone returning home for the Lunar New Year holiday.
A group of Chinese workers at banana plantations in Vientiane province did take a break from work, but they stayed in-country. Railroad workers are taking similar precautions.
A local official told RFA’s Lao Service, “Nobody’s going home because of the virus scare, unlike last year.”
Laos’ Department of Aviation held a meeting Tuesday to discuss the possibility of cancelling all flights to China. The Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) also sent out a notice that it had closed all entrance gates and was not allowing people to enter or exit.
An official of Bokeo province, where the SEZ is located, told RFA, “The triangle gates are closed in accordance with the notice issued to the provincial authorities.”
A resident of Bokeo told RFA, “People are very afraid right now. Too afraid to go out. Stores have run out of masks,”
Laos’ minister of health did not tell local media Tuesday whether Laos had any confirmed cases of nCoV infection. Two suspected cases he revealed on Monday later tested positive.
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service, RFA’s Khmer, Lao, and Vietnamese services. Translated by Pheap Aun, Samean Yun, Max Avary, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Huy Le. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin, Joshua Lipes and Eugene Whong.