A Curious Case of COVID-19
Border Security in the Spotlight
Good day! I hope everyone is having a wonderful, safe holiday season. I wasn’t planning to send out another newsletter before the end of the year, but there have been some important COVID-19 developments over the past few days, and I’m worried that by next week there will just be too much to cover. If you’re reading this through a shared link, please subscribe below.
Before we get to the end, Happy New Year!
On to the news.
Four cases linked to illegal entry
On Saturday, news broke that a 32 year-old Vietnamese man had tested positive for COVID-19 in Vinh Long Province, in the Mekong Delta. A complex travel history was then uncovered: the individual had traveled from Myanmar, where he was working, to Thailand by truck on December 15.
On December 22, he boarded a truck for Cambodia with six other people, and on December 24 they arrived at the border with Vietnam, which they crossed illegally. He went on to his mother’s house in Vinh Long, and she promptly reported him to local authorities so that he could be quarantined and tested. (Go mom!)
It appears that all of these borders crossings were illegal, which highlights how worryingly porous borders are in mainland Southeast Asia. It’s also impossible to know exactly where the point of infection occurred, given that this person crossed three countries overland.
Contact tracing proved difficult, as the individual in question apparently didn’t know exactly where he crossed the border, or what bus/truck companies he used after entering Vietnam.
Eventually, health officials figured out that he had crossed into the country with five other Vietnamese people by boat. On Monday, another member of the group tested positive, this time in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5.
He was taken to quarantine for treatment, while his apartment building was locked down.
And yesterday, two more members of the group tested positive for COVID-19: a 32 year-old woman in Dong Thap Province, and a man in District 9 (who took a while to find - he claimed he hadn’t looked at the news at all this week and didn’t know officials were looking for him). The two final members of the group of six have tested negative.
As expected, detailed contact tracing began for all of these cases, with the names of specific bus stations, rest stops, and businesses published, and testing of known contacts is underway, with no further reported cases at the time of writing (Wednesday morning).
Thankfully, it appears that these four infections occurred outside of Vietnam, though this raises the question of where exactly along their extended multi-national trek they picked it up. (Is COVID-19 rampant along illegal migration pipelines right across Southeast Asia?)
Local media has been filling in some more details on this journey, and it seems rather odd that someone would leave Vietnam, a vibrant economy, for illegal work in Myanmar, but there are obviously lots of dynamics at work here. This morning it was reported that the man in Vinh Long paid VND50 million (borrowed from his family) to various brokers to get across borders.
In response to all of this, officials have warned that many Vietnamese will try to return home for the Lunar New Year (which falls on February 12), and people working as laborers elsewhere likely don’t have the means for a repatriation flight or paid quarantine. (Or, if they are working illegally, the recognized status to return legitimately.)
I’m very interested to see how this plays out among regional governments. Yesterday, Cambodian police arrested seven Vietnamese nationals who had illegally entered the country from Thailand, and just today we learned that a Vietnamese-Canadian man illegally entered Vietnam from Cambodia last week - he has been quarantined and tested negative for COVID-19. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has called on members of the public to report anyone they think may have entered the country illegally.
There are problems on the (very mountainous and rugged) northern border as well, as police in Da Nang discovered two separate groups of Chinese nationals who had entered Vietnam without proper paperwork last week. In an extremely dark twist, the Vietnamese driver of one of those groups committed suicide at the hotel he had been quarantined in on Saturday. He had been paid US$260 per passenger to drive the Chinese from the border to central Vietnam, and had reportedly been facing dire financial problems.
All of the above offers threads to a number of fascinating topics: why are so many Chinese nationals illegally entering Vietnam? (7,000 people were caught attempting to cross the border at one post in Ha Giang Province alone through the first 10 months of this year, though it’s not clear what the nationality breakdown is of that number.) Why are Vietnamese working illegally in Myanmar? And, despite the success of Vietnam’s pandemic response, a lot of people are making dangerous decisions out of economic desperation. I know this isn’t a pleasant way to end the newsletter in 2020, but it’s appropriate for this year, I suppose.
Back next week with a normal edition.