As Vietnam and Cambodia reported increases in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, authorities in Thailand warned their Lao neighbors that a group of Thai nationals that recently visited Laos on a day trip had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Since the initial outbreak of coronavirus epidemic, countries in Southeast Asia, while not able to completely prevent the spread of the virus into the region, they have not reported large numbers of cases.
While confirmed cases number in the thousands in countries like South Korea and the United States, and in the tens of thousands in places like Italy, countries in the Mekong region are still reporting confirmed cases in the low double-digits, with Laos yet to report even a single confirmed case.
But the Thai consulate in Laos’ Savannakhet warned that a group of five Thais that tested positive for COVID-19 visited two restaurants in Laos’ Khammouane province last week. The estimated 14-day incubation period for the coronavirus suggests that the group likely were carrying the virus at the time.
An employee of the Thai consulate in Savannakhet told RFA’s Lao Service Tuesday, “A notice that included all the details about their activities was issued by our office and sent to the Lao foreign affairs department in Khammouane.”
According to that notice, the five crossed the Third Lao-Thai Mekong Friendship Bridge from Thailand’s Nakhon Phanom province into Laos’ Khammouane province on March 12. There, they visited the Chansathid and Phonethep restaurants in Thakhek city and returned to Thailand the same day.
The notice said that the five reported they had been in close contact with employees who had served them at both restaurants.
An official of the Khammouane foreign affairs department confirmed to RFA that they received the notice and that the department began an investigation.
A Khammouane health official also told RFA Tuesday that authorities had inspected and collected information from the two restaurants that morning, but the results of their investigation was not yet available.
“It’s a step-by-step process and it might take a while,” said the health official.
“We don’t have any information yet as to whether the restaurants have been sterilized or if any other actions have been taken, but generally people who are suspected cases must be quarantined or closely monitored,” the official added.
“If the suspected cases are more serious, we must send their samples to a lab [for analysis],” the official said.
Dr. Rattanaxay Phetsouvanh, director of the Lao Communicative Disease Department told local media at about 5:00 p.m. Lao time that relevant authorities completed their investigation, finding that only two Thais, not the five as stated by the Thai consulate, had traveled to Thakhek that day.
Several days before venturing to Laos those two were among 11 who tested positive after they were spectators at a boxing competition in Bangkok where a confirmed case was present.
Prior to testing positive nine of the 11 had been in self-quarantine, but the other two traveled to Laos on March 12.
It was not immediately clear why there was a discrepancy between the Thai consulate’s notice and the Lao authorities’ investigation.
Meanwhile at Laos’ border with China, border checkpoints reported being dangerously low on supplies needed to prevent the virus’ spread.
A guard at the Laos-China Boten border gate told RFA Tuesday, “We’re running out of masks and hand sanitizer because we have been distributing them to the more than 1,000 Chinese and Vietnamese that cross the border each day.”
The guard added that the Boten checkpoint had only one temperature scanner.
Vietnam’s cases rise to 66
Meanwhile in Vietnam, authorities reported that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had increased to 66 as of Tuesday, including five new cases of people carrying the virus as they returned home from foreign countries.
The country’s initial 16 cases had all been cured by late February, but by early March the 17th case was reported as patient zero in an outbreak centered on Hanoi and the 34th case was believed to be the first new case unrelated to the Hanoi outbreak.
But with the revelation that infected people are still getting into the country from abroad, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced at a press conference that Hanoi will temporarily suspend the issuing of new visas to all countries worldwide for a period of 15 to 30 days starting Wednesday.
The Vietnamese government additionally said that all nationals of ASEAN countries, who do not require travel visas to enter Vietnam, or anyone who transits in ASEAN countries, would face a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.
Trade minister wants China to reopen border
Despite the ongoing coronavirus fears, Vietnam’s Trade Minster Tran Tuan Anh asked China to reopen more border gates between the two countries as well as reestablish rail links in order to facilitate an economic recovery.
Economist Ngo Tri Long told RFA Monday that the minister’s request makes economic sense, because there has been a backup of Vietnamese farm products at the border. But he acknowledged that both Vietnam and China should make sure that trading is done in a safe manner to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in both countries.
Another economist, Nguyen Dinh Ngoc, told RFA he disagreed with the trade minister’s request, saying that any gains made by facilitating trade between Vietnam and China right now are not worth the potential devastation that would be unleashed if COVID-19 were to spread further because of it.
A third economist, Nguyen Tri Hieu, told RFA that Vietnam should instead diversify its export markets instead of relying only on China to buy its agricultural goods.
The Malaysian mosque
The Ho Chi Minh City Disease Control Center (HCDC) Tuesday announced an urgent advisory for those who had attended a large Muslim rally near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia between Feb. 27 and March 1, because many Malaysians in attendance later tested positive for COVID-19.
Reuters reported Wednesday afternoon Malaysia time that nearly two-thirds of Malaysia’s 673 confirmed coronavirus cases were connected to the event at the Sri Petaling mosque. Since that report, Malaysia’s confirmed cases have increased to 790.
The international event drew about 16,000 people including 1,500 Muslims from around the world. Several worshipers returning to their home countries from the rally likely carried the virus with them.
Vietnam’s 61st patient had also participated in the event and is currently being treated in Ninh Thuan hospital.
The HCDC is asking those who participated in the event to contact their local health clinic or the hotline of Vietnam’s health ministry for further guidance.
Cambodian cases climb to 33
Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said in a statement that as of Tuesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had increased to 33, many of whom are Cham Muslims who had attended the same Muslim rally in Malaysia.
According to the Cambodian health ministry’s statement, 19 out of 79 Cambodian Muslims who went to the rally have so far tested positive for COVID-19, but that number is expected to climb as the testing facility was still receiving samples.
Brunei additionally confirmed Tuesday that two of its confirmed COVID-19 cases were people who had been to the Malaysian religious event.
A senior government official in charge of Islamic affairs in Cambodia warned that many of the people who attended the event had been going about their daily lives since returning to Cambodia, unaware that they risked spreading the virus to others.
The Cambodian government has introduced a series of measures to combat COVID-19 following the discovery of several new cases in the country.
These include the closure of public and private schools nationwide, the closure of karaoke bars and movie theaters, and the suspension of visas for travelers from five countries in Europe and the United States.
At the same time, several government ministries and institutions have cancelled and delayed meetings, with some officials required to work from their homes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen Tuesday also ordered the suspension of all religious gatherings until the situation improves.
Reported by RFA’s Lao, Vietnamese, and Khmer Services. Translated by Max Avary, Huy Le, Pheap Aun and Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.