Citizens of Cambodia living along the country’s border with Thailand are struggling to make ends meet as authorities close checkpoints between the two nations to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), prompting calls for a government bailout.
Authorities in Thailand, where 322 people have been infected with the disease caused by the virus (COVID-19) and one person has died from the disease, recently announced multiple checkpoint closures in coming days, which Cambodians living along the border say has placed a stranglehold on trade.
Long Sokunthy, a resident of Banteay Meanchey province’s O'Chrov district, said that the closure of the border with the region’s biggest economy had impacted her daily wages as a food vendor, both because of a lack of Thai business, as well as an increased fear of contracting the disease among Cambodians, who instead choose to stay home.
Some 60 percent of local residents are now practicing social distancing from their homes, she estimated, adding that she now earns about 400,000 riel (U.S. $100) per day in sales, compared to 1 million riel (U.S. $250) before the border closed.
“Sitting here I always saw tons of people in the past, but now it's very quiet,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that the local market was also near empty on Friday.
"Everyone is staying at home … I am worried about infection from COVID-19 but I am not able to get out of work despite the disease becoming more serious. My children and I will have to stop working until the Thai border is reopened.”
In Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet commune, near the border, a local resident who declined to be named, said that while the checkpoint remains open to tourists, locals can only cross the border illegally, meaning there has been a significant drop in cross-border trade amid a crackdown by authorities.
“The border closure has affected about 60-70 percent of the local economy, such as rice noodle sellers who originally sold between 30-40 kilograms (66-88 pounds) of noodles [per day], and now only sell five kilograms (11 pounds), so food vendors have lost a lot of money,” the resident said.
Residents of border areas in Battambang and Pailin provinces also told RFA their ability to earn a living had also been impacted by the closures and the growing fear of infection.
Sum Someath, a taxi driver at the Lem border checkpoint in Battambang, said his fares had dropped so substantially that he had to stop working.
“I have stopped driving the taxi for several days, because the fear of the coronavirus has kept people inside, and now I have nothing to do [to earn an income],” he said.
Vorn Pov, president of Independent Democracy of Information Economy Association, said motorbike operators, street vendors, and construction workers have been some of the workers worst affected by the outbreak, and are having trouble even affording daily meals.
“I think the government should prepare a budget package to support the poor,” he said.
“If they owe money to the bank, then the government should tell the bank to delay interest payments. The government should also prepare a budget package to buy food for the poor during the coronavirus outbreak.”
Cambodia had announced at least 51 positive COVID-19 patients as of Friday, including several recently identified Muslim Cambodians and Malaysian nationals who attended an Islamic pilgrimage in Malaysia last month.
The reports of the recent infections have led consumers to avoid Muslim businesses, prompting Cambodian Muslims to call on the public to refrain from discrimination as the nation rallies together to combat the spread of the virus.
Food security in Laos
Meanwhile, in neighboring Laos, which has yet to report any confirmed case of COVID-19, authorities recently issued a notice warning retailers to refrain from price gouging, amid reports of increased prices for goods and widespread hoarding.
The Wednesday notice from authorities in the capital Vientiane said that shops that raise prices amid the health crisis will be “warned, fined, and punished.”
But despite the order, local residents say food is flying off of shelves, while the cost of goods—particularly medical items—is skyrocketing.
“People began hoarding food, especially rice, canned fish, and instant noodles because they’re afraid that the borders will be shut down due to the threat of the coronavirus,” a rice seller at a market in Vientiane told RFA Friday.
People are regularly buying two or three 100-kilogram (220-pound) bags of rice at a time and storing them for long-term use, the rice seller said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another resident of the capital said the cost of face masks had trebled to 15,000 kip (U.S. $1.50) from 5,000 kip (U.S. $0.50) weeks ago.
Reports of the panic purchasing in Laos comes as the government tightens control of travelers in and out of the country.
On Thursday, 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, announced an enforced 14-day quarantine for Lao nationals returning to the country, 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.
Mask shortage in Myanmar
Also on Friday, medical workers in Myanmar—which also has yet to announce a COVID-19 infection—told RFA’s Myanmar Service that they are asking for donations amid a shortage of masks and protective clothing, as well as equipment such as ventilators and defibrillators around the country.
"If there is a real outbreak, healthcare providers are at risk of infection because we don't have enough protective equipment right now,” said Ye Ye Than, a doctor from Thingangyun Hospital in Yangon who has asked for donations through his Facebook page.
“I have been asking for public donations to fill the gap. Ideally, a healthcare facility with 100 doctors needs at least 200 protective suits … In every hospital in the country, there is a shortage of these protective tools for health workers.”
She said equipment like ventilators and defibrillators are too expensive for most hospitals in Myanmar and, even if there are donors, growing global demand means there will be few available on the market.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently announced that it has established a U.S. $1.8 million emergency fund for Myanmar to fight the coronavirus, and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said earlier this week that the government is establishing a public fund to combat spread of the virus, calling on members of the public to donate.
But despite these measures and a recent guidelines published by authorities for canceling public events, Myanmar’s government has faced criticism for failing to secure enough medical supplies to effectively contain COVID-19.
New cases in Vietnam
On Friday, Vietnam confirmed that it had identified six new infections, bringing the total number of COVID-19 cases to 91. Among the new infections were the first two nurses in the country to contract the disease, as well as a British pilot for Vietnam Airlines who lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
A day earlier, the Ho Chi Minh City Ministry of Health confirmed that 49 Vietnamese nationals had attended the same Muslim pilgrimage in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur last month that had caused several of Cambodia’s positive cases. The Vietnamese pilgrims are still undergoing testing, they said.
Vietnam’s central Ministry of Health announced Friday that it will expand quarantine requirements to all incoming travelers from those originally in place for travelers from the U.S., European Union, and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). International arrivals will be housed in converted military bases from March 21, officials said.
Meanwhile, schools are shuttered throughout the country, while authorities have ordered all entertainment venues to close until the end of March and asked citizens to refrain from holding large gatherings or going out in public without protective face masks.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer, Lao, and Vietnamese Services, and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Pheap Aun, Max Avary, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.