MS Risk Blog

COVID 19 – Highlighting Weak Land Borders in Vietnam and Thailand

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At the time of writing both Thailand and Vietnam have kept COVID 19 under control relative to other countries in the region, however two high-profile outbreaks may be challenging their recent success. Both incidents stem from low-paid migrant workers bypassing local quarantine laws. As the Lunar New year approaches these incidents are likely to be exasperated by large numbers of migrant workers attempting to return home to visit their families.

Vietnam’s COVID success is closely linked to the closing of its borders in March of 2020. Apart from “rescue flights” returning overseas Vietnamese nationals, and limited flights for foreign diplomats and expert workers, the country has strictly controlled who is allowed to arrive in Vietnam. All people entering are subject to strict quarantine rules in either government-controlled facilities or selected hotels. However, as the pandemic continues, and flights are restricted, more and more people are crossing the land borders illegally. Many are low-paid migrant workers either unwilling, or unable, to spend two-weeks in quarantine.

Recent cases have included groups smuggled over the northern border with China and a Vietnamese worker from Myanmar who travelled undetected through Thailand. These cases highlight the porous nature of Vietnam’s land borders and the risk that returning migrant workers pose. Both of the above-mentioned cases have led to COVID infections in the community, and, because of the method of entry, many have been reluctant to seek medical help when they first notice signs of illness (one person was reported to the police by his own mother once he began showing COVID symptoms). On January 1st the Vietnamese government reported there had been 343 illegal entrances attempted in just 3 days from Cambodia and China.

Thailand, in comparison to Vietnam, has been relatively relaxed, allowing tourists and workers to enter the country at various stages in the last year. But a recent outbreak may change that. The outbreak has been traced to a fish market in Samut Sakhon. The market is often used by migrant workers and has been linked to over 1,500 cases at the time of writing. With the cases traced back to three Burmese workers. This has led to an outpouring of anti-migrant sentiment in Thailand, with many workers from Myanmar and Laos facing discrimination.

Lunar New Year begins in the second week of February and millions of Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans will attempt to return home. Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian and Thai New Year’s follow in April. Many of the workers traveling home will not be able to afford two-weeks away from work to quarantine so it is likely that illegal border crossing attempts will increase as people attempt to return home for the holidays.

How authorities in Southeast Asia respond to this threat is likely to determine how the countries fight against COVID 19 progresses in 2021. So far, Southeast Asia, has fared well but the next few months will pose a harsh test. Air borders are obviously much easier to police comprehensively than land borders, and countries like Vietnam and Thailand, who share long borders with less developed neighbours are likely to see both legal and illegal traffic increase in coming months.