Laos Uncovers 14 New Covid-19 Cases in One Day: Can this be Good News?

Laos Uncovers 14 New Covid-19 Cases in One Day: Can this be Good News?

 

By Bernie Rosenbloom

On 23 November, The Lao National Taskforce for Covid-19 Prevention and Control confirmed 14 new coronavirus cases, by far the country’s largest one-day tally, and bringing the total to 39.

The 14 cases include a Lao teen and 13 foreigners on charter flights from India and Russia, and who tested negative upon arrival on 20 November, at Vientiane’s Wattay Airport. The 14 passengers then entered quarantine, where they subsequently tested positive.

So how can this be good news for the Lao travel trade?

The procedures in place for Covid-19 prevention appear to be working. These measures date back a few years, when the WHO started working with the Lao government to develop pandemic guidelines and operating procedures at all the country’s points of entry (PoE). Covid-19 put these to the test.

Covid-19 Laos Bernie RosenbloomPhoto credit: WHO/Irene Tan

The country had started boosting its battle against the virus in January, when the newly formed National Covid-19 Task Force tightened screening at immigration checkpoints, transportation centres, and hospitals, and put quarantine measures in place.

Laos temporarily suspended tourist visas at checkpoints with China on 2 February, and began quarantining Chinese visitors. However, the pandemic had already impacted the Lao travel trade. Cancellations mounted. Hotels, restaurants, and tour operators began furloughing staff.

The hammer started to drop on 18 March, when the government ceased issuing tourist visas. It finally hit the gavel on 25 March, when Laos confirmed its first two Covid-19 cases. The government announced Laos would enter a full lockdown on 1 April. They closed all border checkpoints, and halted all flights.

Covid-19 Laos Bernie RosenbloomPhoto credit: WHO/Irene Tan

Inside the country, officials implemented strict measures. “Except for essential” prefixed everything outside a home’s front door: businesses, purchases, workers, medical care…even inter-provincial travel. Hand sanitizer and facemasks became de rigueur.

The edict would be reviewed in time Lao New Year that started 13 April. By then, the country tallied 19 cases, all of which were traced to international travel, and the number of new cases had flat-lined.

Meanwhile, the tourism and hospitality sector was bleeding out. Some businesses quietly closed their doors. Others tippy-toed towards an uncertain future, seeking ways to adapt to a “new normal”.

Covid-19 Laos Bernie RosenbloomDown Vientiane During the Lockdown

Idled staff went home to their villages, and working management took pay cuts, but there was cause for optimism. After a month without a new Covid-19 case, the government loosened restrictions. Businesses reopened and domestic travel realized an uptick.

Charter flights started bringing in a trickle of “essential” visitors and returning Laotians. After more than three months without a new case, the PoE pandemic procedures flagged one on 25 July, two on 16 August, and three individual cases through 16 November. The total had reached 25, and the first 24 recovered. Everything seemed under control.

Then came the muffled 20-November bombshell. The story barely lasted a news cycle, and wasn’t trending on top of Lao social media. Still, the government suspended charter flights from virus-hit countries until 31 December. So, it’s still all good, right?

Yes, on the face of it. Immigration and quarantine procedures are proving to be a good filter for preventing Covid-19 from entering Laos. According to UN statistics, the country currently ranks third in the world for containing the virus, based on the population’s cases per million. On the other hand, a similar metric shows Laos in the lowest five percentile for testing.

Covid-19 Laos Bernie RosenbloomPhoto credit: WHO/Irene Tan

Medical care raises more questions. Does Laos have the capacity to deal with a sudden surge of a few hundred cases…a few thousand? What if Covid-19 does creep into Laos, and its tentacles spread throughout the nation?

Holes are already starting to appear at designated quarantine hotels…if the arrival actually goes there. The government has discovered discrepancies between booking and check-in numbers, and has started cracking down. Other lapses have been reported, such as quarantined guests coming to the hotel lobby and meeting visitors. This writer had that experience in late October. Again, officials are stepping in.

In fact, all hotels in Laos are on their own when it comes to Covid clean and safe procedures. Large chain properties such as Crowne Plaza and Accor, are following solid corporate policies. Standalone accommodations are integrating standard Covid-19 prevention procedures into their own operations. Hoteliers report that staff are embracing their new tasks.

Covid-19 Laos Bernie RosenbloomRiverside Boutique Resort, Vang Vieng

But, what about furloughed workers and people enrolled in, or about to graduate from, tourism and hospitality training and education programmes? Time away from a job risks eroding their newly learned skillset, let alone learning skills needed for the new normal.

And, what happens when guests step outside the hotel? Travellers now insist that a destination be Covid clean and safe. However, hand sanitizer and masks are no longer part of daily life. After leaving the airport, social distancing markers become rare. Many eating and drinking establishments have relaxed their Covid-19 policies.

Has Laos put its guard down, and become cocooned in a sense of security behind the front lines? To be sure, the country’s travel trade is waiting patiently for the sun to come up. Most are sitting on plans for a step-by-step recovery that ensure a clean and safe stay. Some are providing refresher training for dormant staff. Citizens will likely play ball if asked to put masks back on and sanitize their hands.

It’s no secret that Laos depends on its neighbours to visit, and act as regional and global hubs for arrivals. However, Laos offers travellers what they say they want.

Surveys consistently show that more than 50% put a preference on avoiding crowded destinations and taking an experiential outdoor/adventure trip than they did before the pandemic. More than half want to go to a destination where they can relax, and prefer a place where they can support local businesses. Welcome to Laos.

However, communications will be key in attracting tourists, as two-thirds say they would research their next trip more than before the Covid-19 outbreak.

So, can the sudden one-day spike possibly be good news? Reuters just rang worldwide media alarm bells, when on 30 November, Vietnam recorded a single case, and traced it to an arrival from Japan. What part does fear play? Is cautious optimism and level headedness a better path? Only time will tell, and for the Lao travel trade, the clock continues to tick.   

 

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