COVID cases, and blame, rise along southeast Asian borders

By Hannah Beech

The border between Thailand and Myanmar is more than 1,500 miles long, much of it thickly forested. Myanmar has suffered runaway transmission of the coronavirus. Thailand, so far, has not.

But over the past couple of weeks, at least 19 COVID-19 cases in Thailand have been linked to migrant workers who slipped between the two countries undetected. The infections have spooked Thai officials, who have managed one of the world’s most successful coronavirus containment strategies.

The health authorities in Thailand are now racing to trace the contacts of hundreds of people who may have been exposed to the virus. And the events have cast a spotlight on how regions like Southeast Asia that depend on porous borders are fighting to keep the virus out while allowing economic activity to continue.

From Mexican farmworkers in California to Ethiopian construction workers in the Persian Gulf and Zimbabwean domestic workers in South Africa, essential labor is often carried out by undocumented people who slip across borders for work. Yet several countries are now using the illicit flow of migrant labor to accuse their neighbors of virus outbreaks.

In Southeast Asia alone, Myanmar has blamed people from Bangladesh, and Thailand has blamed Myanmar. Vietnam has pointed fingers at China. And China says its southwestern flank is suffering because of movement from Southeast Asia.

The winding frontier between Myanmar and Thailand — separating one country that has managed the virus from one that has not — is putting the crisis in stark relief.

“The border is very long,” said Col. Chatri Sanguantham, whose soldiers patrol the mountainous northern Thai region, near the town of Tachileik, Myanmar. “They will do anything, take any measure, to get what they want, including entering the country illegally,” he said of migrant workers from Myanmar.

Compared with other countries, the total caseload in Thailand — a shade over 4,000 infections — seems absurdly low. But over the past few days, Thailand said it had fortified parts of its border, increased military patrols and uncoiled barbed wire at popular illegal crossing points to try and stop the recent spread of infections.

The police have arrested those suspected of being people-smugglers, who are paid as little as $15 to help migrants cross the border illegally.

Undocumented workers, who often labor in crowded conditions, are of particular concern to the authorities because their uncertain legal status also makes them less likely to admit when they are sick, increasing the odds that the virus could spread undetected.

“Because these people came in illegally, they will lay low, work in hiding,” said Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a coordinator for the Migrant Workers Rights Network in Thailand. “If they get sick, they will never go to the doctor or hospital to get themselves checked.”

Vigilance against the virus has been heightened in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, which sits directly across the Moei River from Myawaddy, Myanmar. Soldiers wearing camouflage and face masks patrol the riverbank. Before the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of people used to cross the river every year to work, study and play in Thailand, where roughly 5 million migrants normally find work, only about half of them legally.

At the narrowest point of the river, children could toss a ball between the two countries. In the dry season, migrants wade across the Moei, and in the rainy season they hop on skiffs.

Thailand began tightening the Mae Sot border in the spring, suspending traffic over the Friendship Bridge to Myawaddy. Restrictions eased a bit over the summer, then tightened again in August when the number of cases in Myanmar grew quickly.

But for all the talk of a fortified frontier, undetected cross-border movement continues, including people who want to avoid Thailand’s mandatory two-week quarantine. Thais still skip over to Myanmar, where casinos and clubs operate in a less-regulated environment, for a few hours of fun. Boats evade border posts to openly transport goods back and forth.

Despite this movement, Thailand has not reported sustained local transmission since May.

Hospitals are currently treating about 180 COVID cases, according to health officials, and almost all of them are among people who returned from abroad and tested positive in state-mandated quarantine.

Yet over the past few months, travelers from Thailand have tested positive after arriving in Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. At least 70 migrant workers who returned from Thailand tested positive in Myawaddy, according to the Myanmar authorities.

In Mae Sot, Thais have started to organize neighborhood watches and set up nighttime roadblocks to prevent outsiders from coming in. But in a border town situated directly across the river from a place in Myanmar where at least 1,200 people have had COVID, keeping out disease is all but impossible.

In October, two truck drivers ferrying goods from Myanmar to Thailand tested positive at a Thai hospital. They spread the virus to their family members in Myanmar and to Myanmar nationals living in Thailand.

By November, that cluster in Thailand was successfully contained. But late last month, a pair of Thai women who had crossed over the border illegally from Myanmar tested positive in Mae Sot.

“This area depends on trade, on migrants,” said Col. Krit Kityathiwat, the deputy commander of the 4th Infantry Regiment that patrols the Mae Sot area border. “We don’t want to be known as the place where COVID is coming to Thailand.”