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Secretive Laos reports very few Covid-19 cases

Observers fear 19 infections could be the tip of the iceberg in a country where strict censorship prevails
Secretive Laos reports very few Covid-19 cases

A woman wearing a face mask amid concerns about the coronavirus stands on a street in Vientiane, Laos. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 05, 2020 06:55 AM GMT

Laos has remained largely unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s government says.

The number of people so far infected with the deadly coronavirus stands at 19, Deputy Minister of Health Phouthone Meaungpak told a press conference on April 29 in capital Vientiane.

Laos which has a population of just over seven million, has tested 1,917 people suspected of having contracted the virus. Only 19 were found to be positive, officials say. Eight people have recovered while 11 remain hospitalized.

However, it remains uncertain how reliable these figures are since there is strict media censorship in Laos, a communist holdout with a one-party government.

Local journalists routinely self-censor in filing their reports, steering clear of any subjects that could be deemed controversial by the Communist Party.

In its annual survey released last month, Reporters Without Borders ranked Laos at 172 out of 180 countries surveyed regarding freedom of the press, saying that the government exercised “total control” over the local media.

“Increasingly aware of the restrictions imposed on the official media, Laotians are turning to the internet and social media,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“However, the use of online news and information platforms is held back by a 2014 decree under which internet users who criticize the government and the Marxist-Leninist LPRP can be jailed.”   

Local reporters “have no freedom to conduct independent investigative reporting or cover news stories in-depth,” a source affiliated to Reporters Without Borders told Radio Free Asia.

“What I know is that reporters working in the field are directed by high-ranking officials who are in charge of particular projects, so they report the news in ways that support official objectives.” 

The work of foreign journalists is likewise severely curtailed around the country.

Although many locals have turned to social media for more reliable information, their online activities are being monitored by the government.

Last November a 30-year-old woman was sentenced to five years in prison for criticizing the government’s handling of a natural disaster on Facebook.

Houayheung Xayabouly was arrested in September after she said in a Facebook Live video that the government’s response to devastating floods in two southern provinces had been inadequate.

Numerous locals lost their homes in the floods and were left stranded for extended periods without any outside help. They received little assistance from their government, according to anonymous accounts posted on social media.

A wider spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus could be devastating in Laos, one of Asia’s poorest nations with rudimentary medical services across much of the country. 

A lockdown was in place around the country throughout last month with strict controls on the movement on people in an effort to contain the outbreak.

The lockdown was scheduled to be eased as of May 3 in tandem with the easing of a similar lockdown in neighboring Thailand.

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