The coronavirus pandemic is leaving many workers in Vietnam and Laos unemployed as businesses have been shut down to prevent the spread of the deadly virus, while Myanmar struggles to deal with large numbers of returning migrant workers who lost their jobs in neighboring Thailand and China.
Southeast Asia had appeared to be relatively untouched by the virus until mid-March, when a sudden rise in cases prompted governments in the region to suspend flights and close borders.
When numbers continued to climb, nonessential businesses were ordered closed, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work.
Since Vietnam’s first confirmed case on Jan 23, over 153,000 workers have filed for unemployment benefits, according to the Ministry of Investment and Planning.
The ministry also reported that millions more in the textile, shoe, tourist service, and restaurant industries are experiencing a temporary loss in income.
The government is working on a plan to support citizens facing economic hardship due to the virus, which Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc declared a nationwide epidemic on Wednesday as the country’s confirmed cases rose above 200.
A nationwide social distancing campaign prompted South Korean automaker Hyundai and its Japanese competitor Honda to close down their Vietnam-based manufacturing facilities starting Wednesday for two weeks.
Ford and Toyota also announced they were halting production at their plants in the country.
Meanwhile the Quang Ninh Newspaper in Quang Ninh province will suspend publication of its printed version from Thursday, following in the footsteps of Vietnam News, which shut down on Monday when one of its reporters tested positive for COVID-19.
The Quang Ninh Newspaper will however maintain its online publication as well as its channels on Facebook and Youtube.
As of Wednesday, Vietnam has reported a total of 218 confirmed cases, 16 more than Tuesday’s total, with 63 recoveries and no deaths.
Businesses close in Laos
In Laos Wednesday, factories, shops and restaurants were shut down, leaving many workers without jobs.
“Our operation has stopped as of today in compliance with the government order,” a Vientiane garment factory owner told RFA’s Lao Service.
The factory owner said that the plant had stopped producing shirts for export to the Netherlands, Germany and France, leaving more than 800 workers out of jobs and staying at the factory’s dormitory. They will continue to receive food allowances through April 11, and a daily salary of 46,000 kip (U.S. $4.60) between April 12 and 19.
Another garment factory that supplies military and police uniforms in the capital has also suspended the production.
“We closed up shop yesterday,” an employee at the factory told RFA.
“Some departments are still working. The shipping department is still sending out our products to Europe,” the employee said.
The employee added that his plant employed more than 1,000 workers who have now all gone back home. They will receive an average of 1.2 million kip ($120) per month prorated through April 19.
A small Polo factory that employs only 20 workers also shut down operations through April 18.
“It’s been temporarily closed for almost two weeks now, but unlike the larger factories we can’t afford to pay the workers we laid off,” the Polo plant owner told RFA. He urged the government to allow the workers to apply for social insurance benefits, or welfare.
An official of Laos’ Industry and Trade Ministry told RFA Wednesday, “We’re discussing these benefits for laid-off workers. During the shutdown, we’d like to request that the employers continue to pay their workers.”
With social distancing in full effect, the restaurant industry has also been hard hit.
A restaurant owner in the capital told RFA Wednesday, “We’re closed until whenever, but our kitchen is still open, cooking food for delivery. We take orders on Facebook and apps.”
Few if any shops remained open in the capital’s marketplaces.
“Yesterday many markets like the Morning Market and the Khouadin Market were closed because the authorities started disinfecting places,” a store owner in Vientiane told RFA Wednesday.
Myanmar border closures
Myanmar’s government temporarily closed its border with Thailand for two weeks starting Wednesday to prevent the further spread of the virus from migrant workers returning home.
The decision was made after a returning migrant tested positive for the virus after crossing the Maesot-Myawaddy No. 2 Friendship Bridge.
“All gates are being closed. Myanmar’s foreign ministry warmly asked workers [who want to return home] to wait until April 15,” Wai Lin Maung, Myanmar’s ambassador for workers, told RFA.
“There will be preparations to monitor returning migrants for a 14-day quarantine,” Wai Lin Maung said.
The country’s health ministry also warned that the large numbers of migrant workers at the border were at a risk of infecting each other.
“While they are in Thailand, they need to get a letter from the Thai government declaring them virus free, then after seven days, they must pass through four checkpoints,” Myanmar Government Official U Moe Gyo told RFA.
But there are those who worry that the migrants might attempt to reenter Myanmar unofficially, by simply crossing the border in areas other than border checkpoints.
Pado Saw Tar Do Muu, a leader of the ethnic armed group known as the Karen National Union, told RFA that their main concern was to control the unnecessary movement of people, and to prevent people from crossing the border over streams.
He added that taking action against illegal border crossers might vary by region, with possibilities including 14-day forced quarantine or a 300,000 kyat ($215) fine.
According to Myanmar’s health ministry, between March 19 and 28, more than 23,000 migrants returned from Thailand.
China’s Yunnan province also closed its border with Myanmar Wednesday, forbidding all but truck drivers to cross.
U Okka of the Muse district administrator’s office told RFA Wednesday, “On March 31st, China informed us about the temporary closures of border checkpoints in northern Shan State starting today.”
“Authorities from Muse are going to discuss with Chinese authorities from Shwe Li, China,” he added
In the Muse border area, only cargo transports headed to Manwaing and Kyin San were permitted to cross today.
“China is only allowing drivers with ID cards issued by Northern Shan state to cross. It is difficult for the drivers from other cities to cross the border,” U Win Aung Khant of the Shan State Traders Association told RFA.
China has also placed restrictions on citizens of Myanmar traveling to Yunnan since Sunday, allowing only those with Muse township ID cards.
“Only one driver was allowed to enter today, so migrant workers returning from China and traders are facing challenges,” Ko Kissana, a Muse merchant told RFA Wednesday.
Myanmar’s government announced several limitations on travelers Sunday, including a decision to prevent citizens of China from entering the country.
Myanmar citizens returning from China will be allowed entry and the government promised to treat those who appear to be sick when they cross.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese and Lao Services and Nandar Chann and Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Huy Le, Max Avary, Maung Maung Nyo, and Khin Khin Ei. Written in English by Eugene Whong.