Golden Triangle Tourist Zone in Laos a Hotbed for COVID 19

Hungry Cambodians risk health to scrounge for scrap metal as two more succumb to coronavirus in Vietnam.
Golden Triangle Tourist Zone in Laos a Hotbed for COVID 19 A 2019 file photo of the Golden Triangle SEZ in Laos.

Laos is struggling to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus in a popular tourist district that caters to Chinese gamblers, while in neighboring Cambodia, food insecurity is causing the country’s poor to collect scrap metal to buy food, authorities and residents of the Southeast Asian countries said Monday.

Dr. Sisavath Southanilaxay, deputy director of Laos’ Department of Infectious Disease, and a representative of the country’s COVID-19 protection unit, told a news conference Monday that the country had confirmed 47 new cases of the coronavirus.

Of these, 38 were in Bokeo province, home to the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which caters to Chinese tourists. Additionally, authorities found four new cases in the capital Vientiane, three in Champassak province, and two in Savannakhet province.

Bokeo is one of Laos’ hotspots for local COVID-19 transmission. Local media reported Monday that of the northwestern province’s 345 confirmed cases, 199 were Laotians, and 95 were Chinese. The rest were 41 Myanmar citizens, nine Thais and one Vietnamese.

The Thailand-based Manager Online news website Friday reported that most of the province’s transmissions have occurred within the SEZ, with the rest occurring in nearby Tonpheung district.

A member of the province’s Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control told RFA’s Lao Service May 12 that lax enforcement on movement restrictions were to blame for increasing caseloads.

“A lot of workers sneak out of the SEZ and spread COVID-19 in the community,” the taskforce member said.

“Our doctors and nurses from all five districts of the province are now focusing on the SEZ trying to contain the spread. The biggest problem is that there are up to 5,000 workers of many different nationalities in the SEZ and almost all of them are not working because of the lockdown, so they have nothing to do and nothing to eat.  That’s why they sneak out,” the taskforce member said.

An official of the Health Department of Bokeo Province told RFA, “Because the number of new cases keeps increasing in the SEZ and Tongpheung District, we’re spraying and disinfecting in many places including the market, offices and homes where infected people live.”

A worker who is stranded in the SEZ told RFA that police were blocking the roads that lead to the outside.

“If they see workers sneak out from the SEZ, the police will take them straight to a quarantine center,” said the SEZ worker.

A resident of Tonpheung told RFA, “We’re just waiting at home for the vaccine rollout.”

In central Luang Prabang province, health authorities are following up on the case of 10 Chinese rail workers and two Lao drivers from nearby Luang Namtha province who were dispatched from their last job in adjacent Oudomxay province. Among the team, one person tested positive for COVID-19, so 11 entered quarantine for 14 days, while the confirmed case receives treatment from a hospital.

“One of the workers tested positive in Oudomxay province. They wanted to test him again there, but he came to Luang Prabang right away. He is in quarantine and officials will test him again,” an official of the Luang Prabang COVID-19 Special Unit told RFA.

News that a COVID-19 positive worker traveled to the Luang Prabang has scared residents of the province.

“All the villages here are concerned about COVID-19 spreading, so all the houses are closing their gates to protect themselves from outsiders,” a resident told RFA.

In the Lao capital Vientiane, which authorities divided into zones and classified them into colors based on COVID-19 transmission risk, five villages in the city limits are closing down. Authorities said that they are concerned that the virus could spread to other parts of the city, so they ordered the five villages, all in so-called “red zones” to shut down for 14 days until May 30.

Residents are not to leave their homes except to buy food and other essentials.

“At Phay village, on May 12, there were 13 cases that we defected on the same day,” an official of the city’s COVID-19 Prevention Unit told RFA.

“Right now, all the alleys in the village are closed and do not allow people to come in and out, and those who have had contact with infected people have been tested. We are still waiting on the results,” the official said.

A Phay village resident told RFA, “The market inside the village is still open… The market in front of the temple sells noodle soups from the early morning until 5 p.m.”

As of Monday, Laos has confirmed 1,638 cases of the virus with two deaths and 584 recoveries.

Cambodian scrap metal

Many unemployed Cambodians have resorted to scrounging for scrap metal as prolonged border closures have prevented them from trying to find work in Thailand.

Gathering in large groups to collect scrap metal has taken a toll on the would-be migrant workers’ health. As of Monday, four of the scrap metal collectors have lost their lives to COVID-19, while 360 others have tested positive for the virus.

In the city of Poipet in the northwestern Banteay Meanchey province, scrap metal collectors told RFA that they had no choice because authorities have not delivered food relief amid the country’s third coronavirus outbreak.

“We are so poor that if we miss a day of scavenging, we will not have anything to eat,” Totj Lim, a 53-year-old scrap metal collector told RFA’s Khmer service.

Totj Lim works every day to support his family of seven and cannot adhere to distancing restrictions because of a lack of food.

“Food is more important than not catching the disease. We could avoid it by taking safety measures, but if you’re hungry you can’t avoid it. When you’re hungry, you’re not peaceful,” he said.

Doum Sophorn, a 47-year-old-resident of the same commune told RFA that her family of five rely on scrap metal collected by her husband so they can afford rice. Prior to the pandemic her family could make between 30,000 and 50,000 riel (U.S. $1 = 4070 riel) per day, but now they can only manage about 20,000, not quite enough for their needs.

“We lack food, and I am not saving anything. What I earn in one day is eaten that day,” she said.

“We go out at a risk. We’re not allowed to go out, but we have no food to eat. I can make only 30,000 riel for two nights. I spend my days organizing the scrap metal that my husband brought home,” she said.

Kang Vatey, another resident, told RFA she also goes out to collect metal at a time she should be recovering from a recent childbirth.

“No matter how sick I am after delivering my baby, I must still join my husband to collect scrap metal every day. We pull the cart through the rain and wind so our children can eat. But it’s never enough,” she said.

“I put my two children to sleep in the cart and mosquitos eat them alive, but if I left them at home no one would take care of them. They cry a lot because they are hungry, and I cry too because I have no food to give them,” she said.

Srel En, a local commune chief, denied claims that the government is not providing food, saying that his commune distributes food daily.

“Those who do not have food to eat should report it to their village commune chiefs. We have food stocks at the commune hall, so it is not difficult,” he told RFA.

“We stock about four of five hundred packages of food to help needy people. We have opened 10 telephone numbers and the commune chief’s number is also open,” he said.

Authorities however have not distributed food evenly, according to Din Puthy, president of the Cambodia Informal Economy Reinforced Association, a labor organization group.

“The people are starving almost to the point of dying. This is not a joke. The government has not done enough. Even the ones who get 25 kilograms [55 pounds] of rice and soy sauce don’t’ have enough to live on,” Din Puthy said.

As of Monday, Cambodia has confirmed 22,544 cases with 154 deaths.

Two deaths in Vietnam

Vietnam’s Ministry of Health reported the country’s 36th and 37th deaths on Saturday and Monday, the first deaths since September.

The 36th death was an 89-year-old woman who had diabetes and high blood pressure, while the 37th was a 34-year-old man who suffered severe pneumonia, brain injury and meningitis.

Local media reported Monday that 20 COVID-19 patients are using ventilators at the general hospital of the northern Bac Ninh province. The hospital has requested the Treatment Subcommittee of Vietnam’s National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control to hold consultations for severe cases.

Vietnam has witnessed many severe cases since the beginning of the fourth outbreak on April 27. At the consultation, Mr. Luong Ngoc Khue, Director of the Department of Medical Examination and Treatment under the Ministry of Health requested to review the resuscitation and emergency capacity of provincial hospitals. 

Vietnam reported 187 new confirmed cases on May 16 and 182 more as of 6.p.m, May 17.  The country of 95 million people has confirmed a total of 4,359 new cases including 1,320 local transmissions since April 27.

Reported by RFA’s Lao, Khmer and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya, Sok Ry Sum and Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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