Cash-strapped Laos keen to reopen borders despite surging COVID numbers

Laos is preparing to welcome foreign travel to the country in the new year,  opening a major airport, land gate, and rail link in a bid to revive a national economy hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lao sources say.

The move comes as health officials push to vaccinate more residents of the country, where new cases of infection now number more than 1,000 every day.

The Lao government is urging citizens living in provinces along the route of a new high-speed railway linking China to the Lao capital Vientiane to complete three COVID-19 vaccinations before the rail line opens to tourists on Jan. 1.

Doctors, health workers and officials working on the border have previously been required to take the three vaccinations, but villagers living near the rail line have not yet completed the full course, a medical official in Vientiane told RFA this week.

Shortages of medical staff in many of the country’s provinces have also left many without effective protection or care, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.

“We have a few younger health workers, but most of them are older, and when they go to villages with large numbers of infections, they have to tell some of the people to cure themselves at home,” he said. “They also give out a phone number for them to call if they continue to have problems.”

The Lao-China high-speed railway passes through a village outside the capital Vientiane, Dec. 3, 2021. Credit: RFA

In northwestern Laos’ Oudomxay province, one of five provinces through which the rail line passes, provincial authorities have already begun to give third doses of vaccine to local residents, one medical worker said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of them are experiencing slight side effects, such as feeling a little ill, but for most of them their reactions are normal, with no side effects at all,” he said. “The government is opening the country for tourism, and Oudomxay is one of the provinces that the rail line passes through.”

Speaking to RFA, a resident of Luang Namtha, which also lies along the rail line, said he is ready to receive his third dose of the vaccine. “We aren’t as afraid to get the vaccine as we used to be. Everything about COVID-19 seems normal to us now,” he said.

In a sign the border opening might not go smoothly, residents living  near the Lao-China border told RFA this week that more than 1,000 trucks were waiting to pass the Boten-Mohan border check point in Luang Namtha Province, and the line has doubled in recent week to 45 km (28 miles).

“It’s been more than a month now; the congestion is getting much worse,” said a motorist in the town of Boten near the border check point.

“We can’t travel from one village to another because there is too much traffic, too many cars and trucks–even motorcycles can’t go through,” he said, requesting anonymity for safety reasons.

Trucks line up waiting the cross the Lao-China border, in a screengrab of  a video broadcast by state-run Luang Namtha Provincial TV, Dec. 29, 2021.
Trucks line up waiting the cross the Lao-China border, in a screengrab of a video broadcast by state-run Luang Namtha Provincial TV, Dec. 29, 2021.

Also preparing to welcome foreign visitors in the coming year are the Wattay International Airport in the capital Vientiane and the First Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge connecting Vientiane with Nongkhai City in neighboring Thailand, sources said.

“The airport is ready for tourists,” an airport official told RFA on Wednesday, also asking for anonymity in order to speak freely. “But the tourists must first obtain permission from the central government to enter Laos.”

“Our airport will be staffed with medical personnel who will all be in personal protective equipment and will do their jobs under strict protocol,” he said.

Doctors and nurses will also be in place at the First Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, said an immigration officer with the Lao Ministry of Public Security, speaking to RFA the same day.

“Our staff will be examining the tourists, who must test negative for COVID-19 before they can travel further into the country. As for other travelers, such as members of the general public, our crossing point is not ready to open for them just yet,” he said.

Health workers wear  in capital Vientiane province, Oct. 21, 2021. Credit: RFA's Lao Service.
Health workers wear in capital Vientiane province, Oct. 21, 2021. Credit: RFA’s Lao Service.

Some are voicing concerns over the country’s reopening, though.

“I’m happy that the country is finally opening, but deep inside of me I’m still worried about COVID-19,” said one restaurant owner in the capital Vientiane. “Everybody is scared, but I guess we will just have to protect ourselves by covering our faces and washing our hands.”

Laos has reported more than 1,000 new cases of COVID infection each day for the last several months, with 1,042 reported on Wednesday. A total of 108,782 Lao resident have become infected, with 355 deaths reported, since the pandemic began, according to official figures.

Only 57% of Lao residents have been fully vaccinated.

In a virtual meeting from Dec. 6 to 21, representatives of the Lao government and International Monetary Fund projected a growth in the Lao economy of 2.1% this year thanks to the export of agricultural products and electricity, with a possible 3% growth predicted after the country reopens.

Deputy Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone, who is also the country’s minister of planning and investment, told the Lao National Assembly meeting last month that Lao economy will grow only 3% this year, short of the target of 4%.

In order to revive the economy, the Lao government has no other choice but to reopen the country in 2022, he said.

Business groups are also pushing for a reopening.

“Many sectors of the economy, such as tourism and wood exports are almost dead,” a representative of the Small and Medium Enterprise Association tolf RFA on Wednesday.

“The tourism and service sectors that depend mainly on foreign tourists will not quickly recover in the near future. We hope that the reopening will boost these sectors including hotel and restaurant businesses,” said the official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya and Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.



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