As coronavirus infections spike across South-east Asia, Myanmar and Laos have conspicuously logged zero patients – despite the fact that both share a sizeable border with China, where the out-break originated.
Both countries say all the people suspected of being infected with the coronavirus have tested negative so far. But limited access to testing equipment and reagents means that they have conducted only about 300 tests for a combined population of 60 million.
The official explanation has not assuaged public concern in Myanmar, where at least four patients with symptoms indicative of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, have died in quarantine. Some panic buying of necessities has occurred in Yangon and Mandalay.
Both Laos and Myanmar have locked down their land borders, closed schools and put hospitals on standby.
“We know that our country could have Covid-19 any time,” Dr Khin Khin Gyi, spokesman for Myanmar’s Health Ministry, told The Straits Times. “We have checked the people who came though the airports. We have checked the people who came through the border points… We have not found it so far, but we are preparing for it.”
In Laos, Dr Reiko Tsuyuoka, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) health emergencies programme lead in the country, said: “If and when Covid-19 arrives in Lao PDR, I expect we will know about it quickly.” Laos is officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
With the help of the WHO and partners, Laos’ Health Ministry has developed “a strong system for detecting and responding to health threats”, she told ST. “It has good laboratories and a network of well-trained outbreak epidemiologists spread across the country.”
Laos has tested nearly 100 people for Covid-19. “The health authorities here are taking a targeted approach to testing as the country’s stock of testing reagents is quite limited at this time,” Dr Tsuyuoka said.
The WHO is helping Laos to stockpile protective equipment for health workers, buy additional ventilators and new laboratory equipment, as well as roll out a public awareness campaign.
Laos has also closed all schools and entertainment venues, as well as designated a 14-day quarantine area for arrivals from high-risk countries, including Laotians returning home for the New Year festival next month, according to the Vientiane Times. The country has also revoked visa exemptions.
In Myanmar, 175 suspected Covid-19 cases are under investigation as of Thursday night, according to the Myanmar Health Ministry website. Tests on 157 people have turned out negative, and results for another 18 are pending.
Dr Khin Khin Gyi stressed Myanmar has no confirmation that any deaths were caused by Covid-19.
She said the ministry is working with civil society and companies to disseminate information quickly, and has also instructed hospitals to designate rooms for patients who might be infected. In Yangon, eight hospitals have already made such preparations. Laboratory testing of samples takes place around the clock, she added.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, in a report on Myanmar released on Thursday, said “the government acknowledged challenges in screening and response capacity in non-government-controlled areas which share a porous border with China”.