Coronavirus: Global situation

Fears of unchecked contagion as virus runs riot

From Asia to the Caribbean, cases are rising amid complacency, spread of virus variants

NEW DELHI • It is not just India. Fierce new Covid-19 waves are enveloping other developing countries, placing severe strain on their healthcare systems and prompting appeals for help.

Nations ranging from Laos to Thailand in South-east Asia, and those bordering India, such as Bhutan and Nepal, have been reporting significant surges in infections in the past few weeks.

The increase is mainly because of more contagious virus variants, though complacency and lack of resources to contain the spread have also been cited as reasons.

In Laos last week, the Health Minister sought medical equipment, supplies and treatment, as cases jumped more than 200-fold in a month. Nepal is seeing hospitals quickly filling up and running out of oxygen supplies. Health facilities are under pressure in Thailand, where 98 per cent of new cases are from a more infectious strain of the pathogen, while some island nations in the Pacific Ocean are facing their first Covid waves.

Although nowhere close to India's population or flare-up in scope, the reported spikes in the handful of nations have been far steeper, signalling the potential dangers of an uncontrolled spread.

The resurgence - and first-time outbreaks in some places that had largely avoided the scourge last year - heightens the urgency of delivering vaccine supplies to poorer, less influential countries and averting a protracted pandemic.

"It's very important to realise that the situation in India can happen anywhere," Mr Hans Kluge, the regional director at the World Health Organisation for Europe, said during a briefing last week. "This is still a huge challenge."

Ranked by the change in newly recorded infections in the past month over the previous month, Laos came first with a 22,000 per cent increase, followed by Nepal and Thailand, both of which saw fresh caseload skyrocketing more than 1,000 per cent on a month-over-month basis.

Also on top of the list are Bhutan, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Cambodia and Fiji, as they witnessed the epidemic erupt at a high triple-digit pace.

"All countries are at risk," said Dr David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. "The disease appears to be becoming endemic and will likely remain a risk to all countries for the foreseeable future."

The abrupt outbreak in Laos - which has recorded only 60 cases since the start of the pandemic through April 20 and no death to date - shows the challenges facing some of the landlocked nations.

Porous borders also make it harder to clamp down on illegal crossings though entry is technically banned.

Nepal and Bhutan have seen cases erupt, in part due to returning nationals. Nepal, which has identified cases of the new Indian variant, has limited resources to combat the virus. The Himalayan nation said it is suspending most flights and turning major hospitals into Covid care facilities.

Thailand, which had been seeking to revive its ailing tourism industry, just reintroduced a two-week mandatory quarantine for all visitors. A government forecast for 2021 tourism revenue was cut to 170 billion baht (S$7.29 billion), from January's expectations for 260 billion baht.

With the public health system under pressure, the authorities are trying to set up field hospitals to accommodate a flood of patients. About 98 per cent of cases in Thailand are of the variant first identified in Britain, based on a sample of 500 people, according to Dr Yong Poovorawan, chief of the Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University.

In Cambodia, since the beginning of the current outbreak, more than 10,000 locally acquired cases have been detected in over 20 provinces. The capital Phnom Penh is now a "red zone", or a high-risk outbreak area.

In Sri Lanka, the island nation at the southern tip of India, the authorities have isolated areas, banned weddings and meetings and closed cinemas and pubs to cap a record spike following last month's local New Year festivities.

Even Vietnam, which has among the lowest number of infections in South-east Asia, is imposing curbs on public gatherings after reporting a 131 per cent jump in April over the prior month.

Across the oceans in the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago announced a partial lockdown after the country's daily cases hit a record high, closing restaurants, malls and cinemas until late May.

The case count in the latest month is about 700 per cent more than the previous month. That high level of increase is also seen in Suriname, on the north-eastern coast of South America. Cases in April rose over 600 per cent from that in March.

After staying relatively Covid-free thanks to strict border controls, some of the Pacific island-nations are now seeing their first wave. Cities in the tourist hot spot of Fiji have gone into lockdown after the wider community contracted the virus from the military.

"The recent rise in recorded cases throughout the Pacific reveals how critical it is to not just rely on strong borders but to actually get vaccines into these countries," said Dr Jonathan Pryke, who heads research on the Pacific region for the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank. "India is a shocking warning to this part of the world about how quickly this pandemic can spiral out of control."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2021, with the headline 'Fears of unchecked contagion as virus runs riot'. Subscribe