I have been hinting at this all week and it’s finally time for the big reveal!
Today we’re running the first-ever commissioned original piece for Dari Mulut ke Mulut. Laos consistently ranks among the region’s most tightly-controlled media environments which makes it hard to understand the country at the best of times. Amid the outbreak of COVID-19 in neighbouring countries, accessing information the latest in Laos is more important than ever.
We’ll be checking in regularly with our anonymous special correspondent and, hopefully!, commission more writers and reporters from across the region as we face one of the greatest challenges to Asean in recent history.
Please consider supporting DMKM’s expansion by becoming a premium member for $6 a month or $60 for the year:
All coronavirus coverage will remain free, but please help me out by sharing and/or recommending to pals and/or hitting that heart up there.
Thank you so much and look after yourself this weekend,
Luang Prabang before the outbreak, via Wikicommons
It feels so long ago now, but as recently as two weeks ago, it was business as usual in Laos.
Karaoke bars and restaurants were open and well attended. The music of wedding season blared all around. Families dined and laughed in front of their homes, with Beer Lao poured in ample measure.
If coronavirus was a threat to Thailand, Vietnam, China and Cambodia — all neighbours — it wasn’t here. Not yet.
Much has happened since then to puncture the Lao’s renowned joie de vivre.
Last week Laos confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19, officially blinking onto the same grim map that the rest of the world has been on for months. Within a week the case count swelled to nine. Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith responded with a “national lockdown” running through April 19.
That timeline is not to be understated. It slashes right through Pi Maii, the Lao New Year — the most festive time of year.
It’s a sign of how abruptly the Lao, so famously cheerful and mellow, find themselves coming to grips with a grave global threat.
For much of March it was indeed hard to sense there was a pandemic going on. Aside from the anxious mutterings of resident Westerners (easily dismissed as falang uptightness), one would have observed few signs of COVID-19 in daily life.
Motorcycles buzzed aplenty on city streets. Social distancing was not evident in major markets, eateries, or bars. The very normalcy of life seemed to testify that Laos was safe. “Maybe it’s the heat,” some joked. Others preached of the unique medicinal powers of the national elixir, Beer Lao.
In fact, Lao authorities were quietly taking preliminary measures at borders, major public events, and hospitals. The official position was that Laos was COVID-free. But even as lighthearted COVID memes circulated on Facebook, the government made clear there were red lines. After one Thai news anchor scoffed at Laos’ claim of zero coronavirus cases, he found himself bowing in apology before the Lao ambassador.
In truth, it was always going to be implausible for Laos to seal itself off from the wrath of COVID-19. Laos has over 3000 miles of borders touching five different countries, including the one where the disease first surfaced. Laos’ border communities, including its major cities, have long histories of commercial and cultural exchange across international lines.
So it was inevitable that the world would finally come banging on Laos’ door.
On March 24, just hours after Myanmar confirmed its first COVID-19 cases, Laos became the very last country in Asean to do the same. Cases have so far been found in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, both places with significant international traffic. Health authorities, aided by the WHO, are now trying to pull from Vietnam’s playbook — to get ahead of the disease and kneecap it early.
Difficult questions loom. How widespread is the disease? What becomes of the migrants? Will civil society cooperate, or will sterner measures be required?
It is a testament to the seriousness of the situation that the Lao, usually easygoing about rules and regulations, are at least partly complying with what authorities have asked. Many businesses have shuttered (even as others try to squeeze out a couple last days of work). Motor traffic has halved. The merry sounds of a typical Lao evening have vanished. In their place is a slight, uncharacteristic edginess that perhaps only an outsider can detect. It’s written on faces, the way people talk, the urgency with which they move.
“Lao do not cry until they see their own coffin,” a Lao friend told me last week. That is: Little worries the Lao until it is immediate. As an outsider, who just weeks ago was wondering how everyone was so calm about this, I take no relish in noticing the change in mood. Part of what so many love about Laos — generations of foreigners, and the Lao themselves — is that it has always kept a certain distance from the world, a reluctance to embrace globalisation as ardently as others. There’s not a single McDonald’s or Starbucks in the country.
Until last week, one almost sensed a disbelief that this global pandemic, seemingly so distant, would do anything besides overlook Laos yet again. But it’s a great big world, for good and for ill, and it has arrived at Laos’ doorstep.
“Maybe it’s the heat,” some joked. Others preached of the unique medicinal powers of the national elixir, Beer Lao. - brilliant. Keep up the good work. Enjoyed the read thank you ☘
Great read . Tho sad too . Went twice to Laos and enjoyed the feel. Buses
Don det. ,Best wishes