COVID-19 Op-ed

Crisis in the “Mekong Oasis”: The Filipino Dilemma in Lao PDR in the Time of Covid-19

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Eunice Barbara C.
Novio
Vongchavalitkul University, Nakhon Ratchasima,
Thailand
Correspondent: Inquirer.net US and Canada
Bureau
eunice.novio@gmail.com;
eunice_nov@vu.ac.th

Sometime in March, I came to Vientiane, the political and
economic centre of Lao PDR, for a break and to follow the route of migrant
Filipinos in the Mekong Region affected by COVID-19. Nursing a bottle of its
world renowned Beer Lao, I was at the veranda of the quaint hotel in the
heart of Vientiane watching European guests frolicking in the pool. Little
did they know that three days from now, all visas on arrival would be
canceled and in just a few days, the whole country would be in full lockdown.
There was not a single known case of infection yet, as we were told to
believe. But things have drastically changed since then. To date,  the
country has already recorded ten cases of COVID-19. Lao PDR has been on
lockdown since 30 March, until April 19 or when the situation gets better.
Furthermore, the border is open only for the transportation of goods and
medical supplies (Savankhan, 2020).Lao PDR, a tiny land-locked socialist
country sharing borders with Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China,
is home to 7,250,525 people.  Before COVID-19, Vientiane was abuzz with
nightlife, particularly the stretch of Chao Anou road going to the Mekong
Riverside. Since 2003, thanks to the relaxed policy of the Politburo, tourism
and Chinese money have been pouring into various investments such as energy,
raw materials, hydroelectric dams, mining and forestry, real estate and
transport (Songwanich, 2015).The country, labeled as an “oasis” by Philippine
Ambassador to Laos Belinda Ante, is not just gaining popularity amongst
tourists, but also amongst foreigners, including Filipinos, in Thailand who
are on “visa runs”—a short stay outside the country where one can apply for a
new visa. However, due to its location and frequent border crossings from
neighboring countries, Lao PDR is highly vulnerable to infectious diseases
like COVID-19.Precautionary
Measures
As early as late January, embassies have
started to find ways curb the rate of COVID-19 infection in their respective
countries. On 19 March, the Lao government had ordered for the closure of all
educational facilities including universities. On the same day, it
indefinitely suspended provision of all types of visas to foreign tourists
including those from ASEAN countries effective midnight of 20 March (Laos
suspends tourist visas, closes schools to prevent Covid-19, 2020).There are
around 1,600 Filipinos in Laos, of which 40 percent are teachers, and the
rest working as IT, development workers, and engineers. Some of them are
working in various development projects throughout the country. Despite the
small population of Filipinos, the Lao Government and the Philippine Embassy
have been collaborating to implement precautionary measures to protect
them.The Philippine Embassy had already procured emergency equipment like
thermal scanner, and hygienic kits. Large gatherings were also suspended for
the meantime. Ambassador Ante spearheaded the distribution of 250 hygiene
kits to Filipinos in commemoration of the Women’s Month, as well as, to raise
awareness on COVID-19. The kit contained face masks, ethyl alcohol, spray
bottles, and wet wipes. It also included a flyer listing preventive measures
to avoid contracting COVID-19.Worst Case
Scenario
“When we talk of emergency, it may mean
wars, or floods. But this is different,” Ambassador Ante, said.The Philippine
Embassy has been trying to address concerns by Filipino migrant workers,
specially teachers who may be out of work due to indefinite suspension of
classes. To monitor the situation, a communication line has already been
established in crucial areas of Lao PDR for better coordination.Ritchelle
Vargan, principal at Achievers Kindergarten School in Vientiane, said her
employer still compensates its teaching staff despite the temporary closure
of the school. However, she is worried about access to medical services. Her
mother, who currently lives with her, usually travels to Udonthani, a nearby
city in Thailand, for her check-ups. Lao PDR, which is a least developed
country, does not carry out the same quality of health services compared to Thailand.
Moreover, social security insurance can only be enjoyed by citizens. This
leaves foreign workers at a vulnerable position, especially in a health
crisis. However, Ambassador Ante stressed that some employers assured her the
Filipino workers are provided with a medical and health insurance.Another
issue is access to essential goods such as food. Most supplies being consumed
in the country are still sourced from Thailand. Despite the ability to
produce locally, farm to market roads are still are difficult due to its
topography. Many provinces in Laos take days to reach by land.How ready is the
Philippine Embassy?
The Philippine embassy can
provide the option of repatriation for distressed compatriots. “If Filipinos
need to be evacuated and there are no more commercial flights, there is a
possibility of using a chartered flight or military planes,” Ambassador Ante
said. The situation in Lao PDR has definitely not reached its peak, and with
how information is being managed and disseminated, the situation may get ever
much worse. This only causes much panic and anxiety to already vulnerable
Filipino migrants living in this landlocked country.‘Go home before, Tuesday,’
my editor said. I left Vientiane before the Laos-Thailand border closed down
at midnight of 21 March.References:https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/laos-population/Songwanich,
S. (2015, June 7)China’s strong investments in Laos bringing a
transformation, The Nation, https://www.nationthailand.com/opinion/30261822Savankham,
F. (2020, March 29)Laos To Enter Lockdown Starting March 30,
Laotian Times, https://bit.ly/3dYsHZANot
listed. (2020, March 19Laos suspends tourist visas, closes schools to prevent
Covid-19, The Star, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/regional/2020/03/19/laos-suspends-tourist-visas-closes-schools-to-prevent-covid-19

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