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Radio Free Asia

Laos Confirms First Two Cases of Coronavirus as Pandemic Grips Southeast Asia

2020-03-24 -- Laos confirmed its first two cases of the coronavirus, the Ministry of Health announced Tuesday, becoming the final Southeast Asian nation to officially record an infection within its borders after Myanmar reported two patients a day earlier.

Through Tuesday, Vietnam had confirmed 134 cases, while Cambodia reported 91. Prior to Laos' announcement, Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports also confirmed that country's first two cases.

The Lao announcement came from the Deputy Minister of Health during a news conference.

"We discovered two cases within [the capital] Vientiane city … marking the first instance of infections in our country," said Dr. Phouthone Muang Pak.

"One is a female Lao national, aged 36, who works as a tour guide for foreign tourists from European countries, while the other is a 28-year-old male Lao national working in hotel management at the Lao Crown Plaza Hotel in Vientiane. He traveled occasionally through high-risk cities to attend seminars, such as Bangkok," the minister added.

The two individuals are currently undergoing treatment at the 150-bed Lao-Soviet Friendship Hospital in the capital, Phouthone said.

Sources in Laos's capital Vientiane told RFA's Lao Service that they were glad that the government revealed the confirmed cases to the public.

"I am both happy and unhappy. Happy because the government is being transparent, and unhappy because we don't know if we too will become victims of this dangerous and frightening disease in the future," a resident told RFA.

Another resident told RFA, "We're relieved without a doubt to know that the government is being transparent about this problem, and they aren't hiding whenever there is urgent news."

"They told us right away so that the people know they concerned about our well-being, because this virus is dangerous"

Laos, one of the region's poorest countries, had been undertaking increasingly strict measures in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's announcement in a bid to prevent the spread of coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19).

Last week, authorities in Laos shuttered all small checkpoints for Lao and Thai nationals across their countries' shared border, suspended issuance of e-visas and tourist visas, recommended that Laotians refrain from any nonessential travel abroad, banned large gatherings, and closed all entertainment venues.

The new measures came on the same day authorities closed all schools throughout the nation until April 21, citing coronavirus concerns.

Laos on Monday began rolling out quarantine requirements for tens of thousands of migrant workers returning home from neighboring Thailand amid growing restrictions there and ahead of April 14-16 New Year festivities. As of Tuesday, Thailand had reported 827 cases of infections and four deaths from COVID-19.

In addition to the two confirmed cases in Laos, 129 people have tested negative for the coronavirus.

Vietnam closes Ho Chih Minh City

Meanwhile in Vietnam, state media reported that authorities in Ho Chi Minh City shut down all business households and entertainment facilities for a week starting 6 p.m. Tuesday in a continued effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The city's Deputy Chairman Le Thanh Liem signed the decision Monday in accordance with a proposal of the Culture and Sports Department after the conclusion of a meeting of a city board dedicated to the prevention and control of the disease.

The businesses affected by the decision include all beer clubs, bars, restaurants, billiard halls, gyms and beauty salons with the capacity to serve 30 patrons or more.

This comes on top of the city's request last week to suspend the operations of some 180 bars and clubs, and about 500 karaoke bars, massage parlors cinemas and gaming facilities in district 1 of the city.

State media also reported that the country's Public Security Minister To Lam told police in every jurisdiction nationwide to require each family to reveal the identities of those who recently entered the country since March 7. Under this plan, all information must be sent to the Public Security Ministry by 6:00 p.m. Wednesday and reported to the prime minister.

The public security minister urged police to continue preventing crimes including those who spread "rumors" that could "cause concern in the community."

In addition Vietnam on Sunday suspended entry to all travelers from foreign countries, including Vietnamese citizens and those non-Vietnamese who would otherwise qualify for visa waivers. This came a day after Hanoi mandated that everyone entering the country would need to go into quarantine for a 14-day period.

Conditions worsen in five patients

Hanoi's health ministry Tuesday announced that five COVID-19 patients in the country had developed serious symptoms, with three of the five classified as being in critical condition.

The ministry did not reveal the names of one of the three in critical condition, but revealed that the other two were a British traveler and the aunt of the country's 17th confirmed case, which was the first new case following the total recovery of Vietnam's first 16 cases.

The aunt of patient 17 is 67 years old, and was hospitalized March 7. She requires a breathing maching and is being treated with an ECMO life support machine.

The Briton, meanwhile is 69-years-old and has a variety of diseases like type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure. He came to Vietnam with his wife on the same March 2 flight with patient 17.

Both patients are currently being treated at Hanoi hospital.

Vietnam's 134 confirmed cases are spread out all over the country, but most cases are clustered around five provinces and province-level cities. Hanoi has 39, while there are 30 in Ho Chih Minh, 11 in Vinh Phuc, nine in Binh Thuan, and five in Quang Ninh.

Halt on rice exports

Also on Tuesday, Vice Director Mai Xuan Thanh of Vietnam's Customs Department asked relevant agencies to suspend rice exports temporarily.

The export stoppage affects batches of rice designated for export Tuesday or later, with those registered earlier will be allowed to be sent abroad.

The move was done not only to stop the spread of COVID-19, but also to strengthen measures to control the smuggling of rice across Vietnam's borders.

The customs department said in the first two months of this year, Vietnam exported 930,000 of tons of rice worth over U.S. $430 million, an increase of 38 percent in turnover compared to the same period of last year.

Free speech in Cambodia

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Tuesday condemned Cambodia for stifling the free speech of its people for expressing their concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Cambodian authorities should stop arresting people for expressing concerns about COVID-19's impact in Cambodia and claiming they are spreading so-called 'fake news,'" the New York-based NGO said in a statement.

According to HRW, Cambodian authorities have arrested at least 17 for discussing the coronavirus since late January. Four of the 17 were members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, who remain in detention. Among the others, 12 were released only after signing agreements not to spread "fake news."

"The Cambodian government is misusing the COVID-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government's response," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.

"The government should stop abusing people's free speech rights and instead focus on providing the public with accurate and timely information about COVID-19," he said.

The statement criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen for initially downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, while also saying he failed to implement a public health campaign in response to the coronavirus.

In response to HRW's statement, Cambodia's Ministry of Information Spokesman Meas Sophoan told RFA's Khmer Service that the ministry will continue its efforts to look for any Facebook page that the ministry considers to be disseminating fake news about COVID-19.

He said that besides blocking the "fake news," the ministry would work with local authorities to take legal action.

He urged the people to share factual news, adding that the government is taking legal action because people have continued to decry ministry's order.

"Cambodia has a right to implement the law," he said, while denying that the ministry is targeting opposition party members.

"When they break the law, they must be held responsible," he said.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA that HRW's statement is meant to protect the opposition party.

"The government does have a campaign to arrest anyone who expresses their views about COVID-19 but the campaign is indented [to punish] for those who have bad intentions and provoke social chaos," he said.

Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) told RFA that people are legitimately concerned about the COVID-19 and their limited knowledge of the disease is what led some to share false information.

"People are concerned so they are sharing information," he said.

"Any legal action against those people is not appropriate and denies their freedom of expression. The most important thing is that the government should educate them instead."

Kem Sokha trial delayed

Meanwhile, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Monday delayed opposition leader Kem Sokha's trial indefinitely over concerns COVID-19.

Presiding Judge Kouy Sao agreed with defense and plaintiff lawyers seeking the delay, which they requested "to protect the safety and well- being of all people."

Soeung Senkarona, a spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) welcomed the move. saying that politicians should forget their political differences for now and try to fight the coronavirus.

Also Tuesday, the Ministry of Health released a statement saying it had found four new cases of the virus, bringing the country's total to 91. The four include two Britons and two U.S. nationals who were travelling on a Viking Cruise that docked in Kompong Cham province.

Reported by Phouvong Boutsady for RFA's Lao Service, RFA's Vietnamese Service, and RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya, Huy Le, Samean Yun and Pheap Aun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes and Eugene Whong.

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