A woman wearing a face mask amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus stands in front of a poster for the Disney film Mulan in Lao capital Vientiane. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP)
Millions of Buddhists in Laos are celebrating the New Year holiday at home as the communist nation struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic.
President Bounnhang Vorachith wished people of all ethnic groups a happy Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) on April 13 when the country began a three-day holiday welcoming the Buddhist era year 2563.
The Southeast Asian nation of seven million people has been under lockdown since March 29 when Prime Minister Thongloum Sisoulith ordered a shutdown of all non-essential activities and travel to check the spread of the coronavirus.
President Bounnhang thanked people of all ethnic groups, party cadres, officials, soldiers and police officers for supporting the country's economic progress.
The new year will see the party and state focus on poverty reduction, the octogenarian leader said.
The former French colony is trying to shed its "least developed country" tag to become a developing country while following a green and sustainable development path.
According to a World Bank report, growth in Laos is mostly dependent on natural resources, which has placed increasing pressure on the environment.
Lockdown stalls economic growth
Economic difficulties have plagued Laos as natural disasters, disease and spells of drought have been the order of the day in the riparian country in recent years.
A World Bank report said economic reforms in recent years had fostered growth in the private sector. Over the last decade, GDP growth has averaged 7.7 percent, with income per capita reaching US$2,460 in 2018.
However, there are fears the lockdown, which has abruptly shut down all businesses and tourism-related activities, will slow down the economic growth of the country.
Laos, bordering fellow communist country China, had reported 19 confirmed Covid-19 cases as of April 13.
Phouthone Meaungpak, deputy minister of health, said on April 12 that the country had conducted 1,140 tests for suspected cases.
The landlocked country, where nearly 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture, reported its first Covid-19 case on March 24, five days after it imposed a month-long lockdown.
While the coronavirus wreaked havoc on China, Laos closed all international checkpoints, stopping exit and entry. Laos also stopped issuing tourist visas to Chinese passport holders during the early days of the outbreak.
Poor students hit
The pandemic has added a miserable chapter to the academic life of poor students, who lack computers, internet and in some cases even electricity. The underfunded education system has been in disarray long before the contagion struck.
"The students stopped learning since schools closed down. They can't use YouTube to learn because our village doesn't even have electricity," a mother in a remote village, who requested anonymity fearing legal repercussions, told Radio Free Asia.
"They will just keep doing their homework assigned by their teachers before the closure. We parents must help them to do their homework," she added.
Another mother said her children and other students in the village could not learn online as they lack smartphones, laptops and tablets at home.
As schools were closed without prior warning, teachers hastily assigned homework. Poor students in cities also suffer as their access to online learning resources is limited.
"The rest of the students are not able to learn online because they don't have devices," a parent in Vientiane said.
Unexpected crackdown on Christians
Christians constitute 1.5 percent of the Lao population but the Communist Party tightly controls every aspect of religious life, according to Open Doors USA, which documents persecution of Christians worldwide.
Christians who convert from the primary religions of Buddhism and animism are often targeted, the group said.
The unexpected crackdown on Christians is continuing in Laos. Human Rights Watch said police raided a village Christmas service and arrested three church leaders in December.
Laos was ranked the 20th worst country for Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List.