COVID-19 Cases Rise Across Southeast Asia as Governments Step Up Damage Control

laos-ussr-hospital The Laos-Soviet Union friendship hospital in Vientiane, pictured in this March 25, 2020 photo, is one of the Lao government-designated hospitals currently treating COVID-19 patients.

Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar took more preventative measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis Monday as each of the four Southeast Asian countries reported small increases in confirmed cases that threatened to tax overstretched health care systems.

Though the total confirmed cases remains far below that of China and many Western countries, including the United States, the four low-income countries are doing what they can to flatten the curve.

Measures include Laos ordering all except essential employees to work from home, Cambodia replacing its health minister, Vietnam ordering businesses to step up mask production, and Myanmar requesting citizens who have recently been abroad to voluntarily quarantine for a 14-day period.

An official from Laos’ special health unit formed to deal with the coronavirus told RFA’s Lao Service that the government told nonessential state employees to stay home starting Monday.

“The order will be enforced until April 19,” the official said.

“Only essential workers have to report to work. Those who are not essential should work at home. We must stay alert and vigilant everywhere,” the official added.

According to the official essential workers include healthcare-related positions,; security personnel like police, soldiers, and firemen; and public utility workers.

Also considered essential are high-ranking officials of agencies like the Department of Health, necessary to protect the public from the virus’ further spread, and from the Department of Commerce, responsible for investigating cases of price gouging for food and medical supplies.

An official from the Department of Planning and Investment told RFA, “All employees from our department are not to come to work at the office as the government has mandated that if any companies have problems right now they must wait until our office reopens.”

The planning and investment official added that while some companies remain open, most have closed. The government has also asked the department not to travel between provinces unless absolutely necessary, in which case permission from the Health Department is necessary.

Laos additionally banned the movement of people around the country and large ceremonies or religious gatherings.

Lao migrant arrested

A Lao migrant who returned to the country from Thailand after losing his job was arrested for not cooperating with local officials at a quarantine facility in Laos’ Bolikhamxay province.

The 27-year-old migrant, surnamed Koth, was taken into custody Saturday. He was unhappy with the 14-day quarantine order.

“At present he is detained for violating the 14-day quarantine order, which is common in every country to follow up on the health of [people recently arriving in-country],” a health official told RFA on Monday.

RFA attempted to contact a security official at the quarantine facility but none would comment on the situation.

A Lao resident told RFA that it was reasonable to arrest Koth because [authorities] don’t know if he might be a carrier of the virus.

“People don’t understand why he does not want to quarantine. If he is carrying the virus it is dangerous for the public. [Koth] is being selfish,” the resident said.

Right now, most Lao migrants who recently returned from Thailand are still at quarantine facilities, except for in some parts of the country that sent them directly home, with some provinces even transporting them to their home districts after they clear inspection at the border.

Migrant workers in Thailand from neighboring countries who lost their jobs returned home en-masse, trying to beat a March 23 deadline issued by Thailand to close its borders. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are all concerned that these workers might be carrying the coronavirus, so they are under strict observation.

Laos confirmed two more cases of COVID-19 early Monday, which raised the total number of confirmed cases to eight.

According to the Ministry of Health, all eight cases are only slightly symptomatic and they are all undergoing treatment at government hospitals.

Five are interned at a hospital in Vientiane and the other three are hospitalized in Luang Prabang province. None of the eight require oxygen support and have been treated with medicines.

An additional confirmed case was reported Monday afternoon.

Cambodia’s Hun Sen threatens NGO official

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to arrest the deputy director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) for comments he recently made regarding the country’s policy of punishing people accused of spreading “fake news” about COVID-19.

Speaking at a press conference held at the National Assembly, following a confirmation vote on a reshuffle of his cabinet, Hun Sen issued a stern warning to the deputy director.

“I call you by name, Mr. Am Sam Ath of LICADHO. You should be careful of your comments during this situation,” said Hun Sen.

“Although Cambodia has yet to be placed under a state of emergency, I can still arrest you since you support those offenders, which can be considered as part of your complicity in committing illegal offenses in Cambodia,” he added.

“Such support for the expression of ideas aimed at discrimination and stroking fears, or encouraging the sale of fake medicines or [test] kits deserves my public warning,” the prime minister said.

The warning came after Am Sam Ath provided updates on the government’s recent crackdown and arrests of at least 24 people who posted comments on Facebook related to COVID-19.

He told RFA prior to the warning that the government, rather than forcefully silence people who are rightfully concerned about the pandemic,  should attempt to educate the people, adding that the arrests are a violation of the freedom of expression

Following the public warning, Am Sam Ath posted a video clip in which he denied that he or LICADHO were defending those attempting to cause chaos in Cambodian society.

“LICADHO and I want to clarify that we have never defended any individuals who caused or stirred social chaos. Our intentions are to ensure and encourage lawful enforcement and mutual respect of rights so that we in our country can live in peace and harmony together,” he said in the clip.

Ahead of Monday’s cabinet reshuffle, local newspaper Khmer Times, believed to be owned by Hun Sen’s eldest son Mr. Hun Manet, issued a rare commentary criticizing the country’s Ministry of Health, then led by Minister Mam Bun Heng.

The paper also floated the idea removing the minister for ineffective measures against COVID-19, arguing that he is ‘not qualified to cope with the crisis,’ and suggesting that he should be replaced in the reshuffle.

Casino closure

Also Monday, Hun Sen and his economic minister ordered the temporary shutdown of all casino businesses operating inside Cambodia starting April 1 until further notice. The new measures will not require casinos to report their monthly revenue during this period.

In addition Hun Sen ordered the suspension, effective April 5, of any export of white rice and unhusked rice as a measure to ensure food security inside the country.

He also ordered the purchase of 3 million masks and 5,000 medical gowns from an undisclosed country. He later told his media outlet Fresh News that he would increase the purchase from 3 million to 5.2 million masks.

The total number of confirmed cases in Cambodia jumped to 107 Monday, among which 23 have recovered and 84 are undergoing treatment, according to the Ministry of Health. The ministry also banned private clinic owners from treating people for COVID-19 without authorization. Confirmed cases have risen significantly as the country over the past two weeks as there were only 12 on March 15.

Chinese authorities Sunday refused to allow a Cambodian plane carrying 146 Chinese citizens to land, ordering the pilot to return the plane to Cambodia.

RFA tried to reach Cambodian civil aviation spokesperson Chea Aun, spokespersons for the Immigration Department Ath Bony and Keo Vannthorn, and the government’s spokesperson, Phay Siphan, but their phones went unanswered.

However, Sin Chansereivutha, spokesperson of the Civil Aviation agency, was quoted by Fresh News as saying that the plane from Phnom Penh to Chengdu was not refused because of any confirmed COVID-19 cases on board the flight. It was because the airport’s began enforcing a Chinese government order that requires all airlines to send no more than one flight into China per week, he said.

Vietnam to step up facemask production

Vietnam’s Health Ministry proposed that companies making facemasks increase production to 5 million per day.

The proposal is meant to alleviate shortages caused by increased demand for the masks, which are a result of a March 16 government directive to wear facemasks in public areas like supermarkets, airports, train and bus stations and other potentially crowded locations.

Reuters also reported that the country is working on a plan to produce breathing machines to tread COVID-19 patients.

On the same day, the Hanoi Communist Party Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung asked the Hanoi Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to use 5,000 COVID-19 rapid test kits which can give results in 10 minutes.

Nguyen also told the health department to set up 10 rapid testing stations in inner city districts.

He said Monday that Hanoi is entering dangerous period of COVID-19 as there are 26 infected cases at the Bach Mai hospital and it is estimated the number of new infections will increase in the upcoming days.

Currently in Hanoi there are 6,898 people under quarantine who have had recent contact with COVID-19 patients.

In order to deal with the situation, Nguyen decided to establish one more quarantine zone at National Defense & Security Education Center under the National University located in  Thach Hoa Commune, Thach That district.

Vietnam News also announced Monday that it would halt publishing the newspaper from Tuesday until April 15 because one of its reporters tested positive for COVID-19, the first such instance of a reporter becoming infected in the country.

The reporter is in stable condition at a Hanoi hospital.

The Health Ministry announced Monday that the country’s total confirmed COVID-19 cases rose by three to 203. It added that 710 suspected cases are quarantined at hospitals, with 32 thousand under quarantine in state-run centers, and another 31,000 under self-quarantine at home.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc called for people to stay at home, asking non-essential staff to telework.

Myanmar migrant tests positive

A Myanmar migrant who recently returned to the country from neighboring Thailand tested positive for COVID-19 in Yangon. Myanmar’s health ministry reported that the migrant crossed the border at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy land border checkpoint and had been in Yangon for several days.

The Ministry said it was concerned that a national outbreak could occur if the overwhelmed border gates could not handle the high numbers of migrants returning to Myanmar from Thailand.

A member of the state parliament from Myawaddy told RFA’s Myanmar Service that it was impossible to tell that the migrant was infected when he crossed the border.

“The symptoms don’t show for 14 days. That’s why we didn’t find him positive when we tested him at the border,” said Thant Zin Aung.

“We are now more worried than before,” he added.

According to the state MP, the migrant traveled to Yangon on board a passenger bus that was not arranged by the government, and there were 52 passengers on the same bus.

Authorities are trying to track down everyone who rode the bus and those that might have had contact with the migrant during the bus trip.

More than 23,000 have returned to Myanmar through the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border crossing in the past 10 days. The Ministry of Health said in a statement that it is concerned about the potential for a nationwide outbreak because of the high number of returnees.

San Lin Oo, of the Mudone Township CSO group pleaded with returning migrants to listen to the instructions of the authorities.

“We are asking for all people who returned from Thailand [to go into quarantine,]” he told RFA.

San Lin Oo added that the group asked authorities for a list of migrants who returned on March 23 in order to help prevent a potential outbreak.

Min Aung Htoo of the Mon State Network of Civil Society told RFA that the government needs to take more decisive action.

“Authorities should order a stop to the celebration of festivals and any gatherings, and take action against those who violate these orders,” he said.

“They also should provide to health workers, volunteers and people who are under quarantine the things that they need. They shouldn’t just ignore their needs,” Min Aung Htoo added.

On Monday evening the ministry announced four new cases in Myanmar, increasing the total to 10.

Factory owners turn tail

Factory owners in the Yangon, Irrawaddy and Bago regions are trying to flee without paying compensation to some 20,000 workers who are now out of work because of the COVID-19 crisis, RFA has learned.

The workers, ignoring the risks of spreading the disease in a public gathering, protested in large groups.

Ko Myat Kyaw, a protester, told RFA’s Myanmar Service, “It is projected that 10,000 more will lose their jobs as more warehouses close down.”

Although there are protections such as a workers’ assistance program, compensation is mired in negotiation and the unemployed workers are running out of money and food, as well as risking exposure to the virus.

Several workers petitioned the Yangon government for help, and “the labor minister told us that authorities would resolve the problem, but he did not give us an exact timeframe,” said Ma Aye Pwint Phyo, another protester.

Reported by RFA’s Lao, Khmer and Vietnamese Services and Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya, Sovannarith Keo, Khet Mar, Khin Khin Ei and Huy Le. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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