Laos Sees Huge Jump in COVID-19 Cases, While Lockdown in Cambodia Threatens Food Security

Laos on Monday saw its biggest jump in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, since the pandemic began more than a year ago, as the impoverished nation expanded a lockdown and added additional capacity at treatment centers to deal with the drastic rise in infections.

Rattanaxay Phetsouvanh, director general of the Communicable Disease Control Department under the Ministry of Health, told reporters during a news conference Monday that authorities had tested nearly 2,700 people “and found that 113 of them are positive for COVID-19, bringing the nationwide total to 436 cases and no deaths.”

He said 31 of the newly infected are from the capital Vientiane, while 54 are from Champassak province, 13 from Savannakhet province, seven from Bokeo province, two from Oudomxay province, two from Phongsaly province, and one each from Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Xayaburi, and Sekong provinces.

The 113 new cases follow announcements of 76 cases on Sunday and 88 cases on Saturday in the nation with a population of around 7.2 million people.

Phouthone Muongpak, Vice-Minister of Health, announced at Monday’s press briefing that infections have been identified in 13 out of 17 provinces in Laos and the capital.

“The virus is also spreading quickly in the capital and Champassak province in the south,” he added.

The announcement came as a member of the national coronavirus task force told RFA’s Lao Service that the capital’s hospitals are nearly full.

“We’re adding beds in hospitals and setting up field hospitals in Vientiane to prepare for the rising number of COVID-19 patients in the near future,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

An official with Vientiane’s Friendship Hospital—the main hospital treating COVID-19 patients in the capital, told RFA that the number of beds in the facility had been expanded to 300 from a normal capacity of 100.

“Right now, only 80 beds are still available,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government has added two more provinces—Luang Prabang and Oudomxay—to an existing order prohibiting travel down to the district level. The number of provinces included in the lockdown, which requires that people stay in their homes unless they are experiencing an emergency, is now at 15. Oudomxay province’s lockdown involves a curfew between 9:30 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

Phonepaseuth Oumaphom, director of the Sanitation and Health Promotion Department under the Ministry of Health told RFA that the government hopes to inoculate 22 percent of the country’s population, or around 1.5 million people, by year-end.

“So far, more than 126,000 have received their first dose of the vaccine, while 58,000 have received the second dose,” he said.

Undocumented worker agreement

Also on Monday, illegal migrant workers from Laos may begin to return home from Thailand following an agreement reached by the neighboring nations’ immigration departments over the weekend. Under the deal, the workers will not be fined, charged, or punished – as illegal migrants usually are — and will be required to quarantine for two weeks in their home provinces.

A member of the Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Xayaburi province confirmed the agreement, adding that the workers will not be responsible for covering the cost of their stay, food, or any other expenses during their mandatory quarantine period.

Some undocumented Lao workers in Thailand welcomed the agreement, with one in Bangkok saying that if he had the 10,000 Thai baht (U.S. $320) he needed to return home, he would have already done so.

However, a Lao worker in Thailand’s Pathum Thani province said he had no plans to return.

“I’m too scared of traveling and of COVID-19,” he said.

Laos, a landlocked nation, was largely spared from the brunt of global infections in 2020, but has taken a devastating economic hit amidst the pandemic. Tourist visits plummeted and earnings from Lao migrant laborers working in Thailand fell dramatically.

Lockdown in Cambodia

In neighboring Cambodia, where the coronavirus also made few inroads in 2020, an outbreak that began in February is quickly growing out of control.

Last week, Cambodia shattered its daily record of COVID-19 infections with nearly 700 cases, as the country’s death toll from the pandemic rose to 61 with a caseload of more than 8,000 people. By Monday, the number of deaths had reached 79 and more than 10,500 infections had been recorded.

Cambodia’s economy—which leans heavily on the production of textiles—has been battered by a drop in export demand and a series of lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the virus. Migrant workers in next-door Thailand also lost their jobs in lockdowns.

The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue a 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao in Kandal province from April 15-28 and require the two cities’ combined 2.3 million residents to adhere to a strict curfew or, in certain “red zones,” stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency.

On Monday, the order was extended for a third week until May 5 and authorities said more time could be added if residents fail to adhere to the measures. Workers from nearly 230 factories in the region have been infected.

Residents of the affected red zone districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao have said they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes, and claim they are running out of supplies.

Hun Sen has vowed to hand out 300,000 riel (U.S. $75) per family to help alleviate the problem but acknowledged Monday that his government doesn’t “have the mechanism to distribute it,” and said the money will be sent “randomly” to those in lockdown areas.

Authorities have also threatened to fine anyone found in breach of the lockdown between 1-20 million riels (U.S. $250-4,950) and punish them with between six months to five years in prison. More than 120 people have been arrested, with several being detained and charged for disobeying the curfew and lockdown since April 15.

Police in the capital region have been using batons and sticks to chase and beat people wandering outside of their homes in recent days—videos of which were distributed by local authorities via posts to their Facebook accounts.

Threat of ‘famine’

The lack of access to food prompted the acting chief of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy to call for aid from the International Red Cross (IRC) and World Food Programme (WFP) in a post to his Facebook account Monday “for the population of Phnom Penh threatened by famine” as the result of a “poorly conceived and executed” lockdown.

“The food supply has suddenly fallen to zero for most of the inhabitants, especially the poor who are the great majority of the population and who, even in normal times, live from hand to mouth,” wrote the opposition leader, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated.

“Under the current confinement and the absolute prohibition on leaving home, they are very quickly falling prey to undernourishment and famine.”

In an emailed response to an inquiry from RFA, a spokesperson for the WFP said that information on the effects of the lockdown in Cambodia on the food security of the most vulnerable groups affected by the measures “remains limited at this time” due to the fast-evolving nature of the government’s mitigation efforts and a lack of access to the red zones.

“WFP and partners have also been advocating to ensure access to an affordable, safe and nutritious diet for the most vulnerable groups and have reiterated this message in relation to the locked down areas, highlighting the specific nutritious needs of some groups such as pregnant and lactating mothers or the elderly, that will need to be addressed should the measures extend in time,” the spokesperson said.

Ensuring worker safety

Despite the ongoing austerity measures, labor rights officials told RFA on Monday that Cambodia will not be able to prevent the spread of the outbreak if relevant stakeholders fail to ensure the safety of factory workers.

CENTRAL labor rights program manager Khun Tharo said the risk of infection for factory workers “is not new,” despite a long-running call by civil society organizations and unions to deal with the issue by improving safety measures in the workplace. He said the government and factory owners remained indifferent until the virus spread to hundreds of workers.

Additionally, Khun Tharo said that the crowding of factory workers in small trucks as they commute to work, as well as a failure to space out workers while they enter the factories, continues to occur daily. Factories also lack an adequate amount of sanitizer and masks for workers, he said.

Attempts by RFA to seek clarification from Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, Phay Siphan, government spokesman, went unanswered Monday.

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