China on Tuesday donated truckloads of medical supplies to Laos, where hospitals struggled with shortages of gear, while Vietnam imposed social distancing polices and moved to relax restrictions on rice exports it had earlier made to ensure food security during COVID-19 the crisis.
While Laos was one of few countries that had not reported a single confirmed case until very recently, the medical system there appears to be ill equipped should infections rise.
At the Dong Phosy health center in Vientiane, the government of China donated truckloads of protective gear to Lao authorities to for use when in close proximity to confirmed COVID-19 patients.
"There are about four or five army truck loads worth of supplies that will be distributed to provincial hospitals," an official from the center told RFA Tuesday.
"The equipment was delivered yesterday and has not been distributed yet," he added.
According to the Dong Phosy official, China donated 400,000 facemasks, 5,000 N95 respiratory masks, and 5,000 suits of protective clothing, all worth about U.S. $300,000.
"The gear we received from China at this time will mostly go to the bigger provinces like Savannakhet, Luang Prabang, Champassak, and Vientiane, because those four provinces have clusters of people living [in close proximity]," he said.
The Vientiane health center official said that the donation was not the first, previous donations from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Lao organizations were already distributed to provincial hospitals.
China is also sending health teams to help Laos in its fight.
"A team of Chinese workers are coming to help inspect and treat people with the coronavirus in several hospitals in Vientiane. Some are working at the Centers for Disease Control and some of them are helping people [wear] masks and using hand sanitizer [correctly] to protect themselves," the Dong Phosy health center official said.
A health official in Attapeu province told RFA's Lao Service Tuesday that most of the district hospitals in the country do not have on hand the necessary equipment needed to test for coronavirus.
"[They] don't have [the equipment], but if people are sick with a high fever, they can take samples to send to a provincial hospital for testing," said the official, from the Sanamxay district.
"Also Sanamxay does not have a hospital, just a health center. Physical tests must be done at the provincial hospital, and the Sanamxay health center can only advise people," the official added.
The official confirmed that rural people are aware of the coronavirus, and want to get tested but are being told that the health center does not have the right equipment.
"If they are sick with a high fever, we advise them to go to the provincial hospital for further inspection, but traveling [there] is hard and may take several days because of poor road conditions," the official said.
"Some of them simply won't go, and those who do go, in the case that they are found to be infected with the coronavirus, they have to go for treatment at the larger hospital in [neighboring] Champassak province, which has modern medical equipment and teams of experts to help them," the official added.
"But it's even more difficult to travel there, again due to poor road conditions, and they also would need to spend more money, and we're talking about poor people here," said the official.
Another health official, from Savannakhet province's Champhone district told RFA of similar conditions there.
"We don't test for coronavirus here. They send samples to the provincial hospital," the second official said.
He added that patients with a high fever, cough or sneeze are also referred to the provincial hospital for further checks.
An official from the special unit in the capital Vientiane, formed to deal with the coronavirus situation, told RFA Monday that district hospitals are under direction to check the health of the people and to refer them to provincial hospitals if they suspect coronavirus, because only larger hospitals can process tests.
A Lao citizen from Oudomxay province told RFA that he was relieved by the Chinese donation, saying, "I am confident that because China was the first country with people infected with coronavirus, they will be able to cure [confirmed cases] with no new infected cases."
According to data provided by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, as of Tuesday, Laos has reported nine confirmed coronavirus cases.
Vietnam relaxes export restrictions
Vietnam's Ministry of Industry and Trade proposed allowing the resumption of exports of rice, but under strict monthly limits, in an aim to keep as much money as possible flowing into the country during the coronavirus crisis while simultaneously ensuring food security.
Vietnam last week suspended the export of rice temporarily until May to ensure that domestic prices remained stable as a second wave of the coronavirus hit the country.
The ministry sent the proposal, based on reports of predicted yields, to the country's prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, on Tuesday.
According to the reports by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, grain yield in 2020 is predicted to reach 43.5 million tons and domestic demand is estimated at 30 million tons. The remaining 13.5 million tons of grain will be tabbed for export, about 6.5 million tons of which is rice.
The trade ministry suggested that the prime minister approve about 800,000 tons of rice for export in April and May, with the ministry strictly controlling the export volume, and possibly adjusting it in May based on further developments in the global COVID-19 situation.
The trade ministry estimates that rice exports over the next two months will be 40 percent lower compared to the same period last year.
According to Vietnam's state media, on Tuesday there were 207 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam. Among them, 56 have been discharged from hospitals after recovering.
Social distancing order
Prime Minister Nguyen Tuesday also ordered a 15-day period of social distancing nationwide beginning on Wednesday to prevent the virus' further spread.
The order restricts people from leaving their homes, except for essential purposes and bans public gatherings of more than two people in public.
All but essential businesses are also ordered to close down, with the remaining businesses ordered to follow strict health guidelines, including that staff wear face masks and keep a safe distance from each other and that all areas are properly disinfected and sterilized.
Additionally the country will temporarily close its borders during the period, echoing recent decisions by neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
Flights in and out of Vietnam were temporarily suspended Sunday through the end of April.
Reported by RFA's Lao and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Sidney Khotpanya and Huy Le. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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