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Regional Interests

Southeast Asia Hit By COVID-19 Outbreaks After Being Largely Spared By The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For more than a year, mainland Southeast Asia was largely spared from the COVID-19 pandemic. Not anymore. Recent outbreaks in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand have the country's leaders scrambling, and the outbreaks show no sign of ending. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Sakao Roberts lives on a hill in the far north of Thailand with a lovely view of the neighbor's rice paddies and the herons and egrets feeding there. Her house is close to the Mekong River and a loud karaoke bar on the Laos side of it, which used to keep her awake at night. A couple of weeks ago, the music stopped. She thinks it's COVID.

SAKAO ROBERTS: I think so. If not serious, they wouldn't stop party, they wouldn't stop singing, dancing.

SULLIVAN: The Lao province across the river this week recorded the highest number of new infections nationwide, and the government shut it and the casino there down.

ROBERTS: I'm scared - scared of the neighbors, scared of Laos and refugee and people who try to sneak into Thailand. But now, not only them that carry COVID, Thai people too - everyone everywhere.

SULLIVAN: The outbreak that started it all has been traced to a cluster of clubs in an upscale Bangkok neighborhood in late March. Dr. Thiravat Hemachudha is a professor of medicine at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

THIRAVAT HEMACHUDHA: (Through interpreter) It wasn't just one customer, it was thousands of people. After that, they brought the virus home to their families and everywhere until it spread throughout society.

SULLIVAN: But where did it come from? Rick Brown oversees the World Health Organization's COVID response in Thailand.

RICK BROWN: There's good circumstantial evidence that suggests it may have been imported over porous borders from Cambodia. The upsurge in cases in Cambodia started around the 20 of February, so it predated the upsurge in Thailand. And we know that both of these upsurges or outbreaks are being driven by the variant that originated in the U.K.

SULLIVAN: And that variant wasn't done spreading. It soon appeared in neighboring Laos. In early April, Laos had just 88 confirmed cases nationwide since the pandemic began and not a single COVID death, according to state-run television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The 89th person is a 24-year-old woman from Outhomphone District in Savannakhet Province who returned from Thailand.

SULLIVAN: Since then, the number of cases has exploded to more than 1,300, with many communities, including the one with the casino with the loud music, under full lockdown. And Vietnam, another country largely spared during the first year of the pandemic, is now reeling under a new wave, too. It shares a border with both Laos and Cambodia. Here's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on state-run VTV on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF VTV BROADCAST)

PHAM MINH CHINH: (Through interpreter) Drastic measures should be taken to control the situation. Our neighboring countries are struggling during this fight, and this has put heavy pressure on Vietnam.

SULLIVAN: All of these countries have tightened security on their borders along with targeted testing and contact tracing. But borders leak, public buy-in is uneven more than a year into the pandemic and a variant from India believed to be highly transmissible has just arrived here. The WHO's Rick Brown.

BROWN: I think this is a real concern. If there is circulation in communities in bordering countries, then that could be importation of another variant through land borders.

SULLIVAN: Further straining countries whose health systems are already reeling with steadily rising caseloads combined with a woeful lack of vaccines to counter this new threat. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL'S "EMPIRE LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.