The government of Laos has closed its borders and announced a two-week lockdown in the capital, Vientiane, as the country weathers a rare outbreak of COVID-19 linked to its neighbor Thailand.
Vientiane will bunker down until May 5, Lao Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh announced on Wednesday, during which time the city’s residents must remain at home unless buying groceries or seeking medical treatment. All gatherings of more than 20 people will be prohibited, and entertainment venues, bars, massage parlors, and gyms will be forced to close.
The government has also banned travel between the capital and the provinces and has moved to clamp down on illegal border crossings from Thailand, which is currently in the midst of its worst outbreak of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.
This is Vientiane’s second lockdown, after restrictions were introduced in April of last year after the discovery of the country’s first cluster of COVID-19 cases.
“Now, our country is at high risk of having a COVID-19 outbreak in the community, especially in the capital Vientiane and in Savannakhet province,” Phoutone Muongpak, Lao vice minister of health and head of the National Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control, told reporters on Tuesday.
“I would like to urge our people to comply strictly with the prime minister’s previous orders by stepping up border controls, stopping illegal crossings, and then arresting and sending to quarantine centers anyone who enters Laos illegally.”
The state-run Vientiane Times reported that 26 of the 28 cases identified on Wednesday were residents of Vientiane who had contact with a student who reportedly caught the virus from a Thai man. The other two were workers who had returned from Thailand to Champassak province in the south of the country.
Officials in Savannakhet province have stepped up patrols of the Mekong River border with Thailand, after a woman who contracted COVID-19 revealed she had been in contact with two Thai men who entered the country via Savannakhet. Lao Airlines also announced that it was halting all domestic flights until May 5.
Thailand is currently in the midst of its worst wave of COVID-19 infections, which has sent the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha scrambling for new sources of vaccines. Thai officials reported 2,070 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, a single-day record, bringing its total to 50,183 infections. The country also reported four deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 121.
The Lao lockdown also comes a week after its neighbor Cambodia instituted a two-week lockdown of the capital Phnom Penh and the nearby town of Takhmau to get a handle on its own alarming COVID-19 outbreak. Announcing the measures last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen told the nation, “We are on the brink of death already. If we don’t join hands together, we will head to real death.” The lockdown has since been extended to the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
On Thursday, Cambodian health authorities confirmed 446 new cases of COVID-19, bringing its total to 8,193, while three more people died of the disease, bringing the country’s toll of fatalities to 59.
While the outbreaks in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia may seem insignificant compared to the record-breaking outbreak currently ravaging India, they are alarming given that these nations went through most of 2020 mostly untouched by the virus.
In the case of Laos, the country’s successful avoidance of COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic was purchased at considerable economic cost, with the collapse of the country’s tourism industry pushing the country to the brink of a sovereign default. Lacking the foreign reserves to service its existing debts, the Lao government was forced to sign over a controlling stake in its national electricity grid to a Chinese state-owned firm.
While the Lao government is taking swift action to preempt the spread of the virus, a serious outbreak would effectively wipe out the hard-won gains of the last year, and compound the country’s economic problems still further.