Officials said a cluster of cases in Tonpheung district was traced to people who illegally entered the area, ignoring lockdown rules, according to the Vientiane Times, a state-run English-language newspaper.
The paper also reported that a district task force accused locals of illegally bringing foreigners into Laos from neighboring Myanmar and Thailand.
Coronavirus cases have been spiking in landlocked Laos and the rest of Southeast Asia in recent weeks. A surge of cases that emerged in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, was tied to festivities during the traditional religious new year holiday celebrated throughout Southeast Asia, in mid-April.
Laos’ first official Covid-19-related death was reported Sunday. To date, authorities have identified at least 1,327 Covid-19 cases in the country, including 730 in Vientiane and 284 in Bokeo province, which is home to Tonpheung district and the Kings Romans casino. Of the nationwide cases, 1,088 are active.
Laos’ borders have been officially closed since last year as part of the country’s efforts to stop Covid-19 from spreading. However, sources told CNN that couriers continued to ferry people illegally into the country.
One former travel agent said, though crossings are officially suspended, people were illegally transporting a small number of tourists and Thai casino employees from Thailand across the Mekong River into Laos.
The agent, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive and illegal activity, said casino employees based in Thailand have stopped traveling to work and “won’t come back until the Covid situation improves.”
“They still want to keep their job at the casino,” the agent said.
Another source told CNN bars and nightclubs next to the casino appeared open as recently as January, and were playing music loud enough that it could be heard in Chiang Rai province, across the Mekong River in Thailand. Neither country had major Covid-19 outbreaks at the time. Entertainment venues in Laos were ordered to close on April 12, according to the US Embassy in Laos.
Kings Romans and Tonpheung are both located in a 100-square-kilometer (39-square-mile) area called the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ), a swathe of territory managed by a Chinese national named Zhao Wei. The US Treasury Department accuses Zhao of using the territory to run a criminal empire with interests in child prostitution, the illicit trade of wildlife, and drug trafficking. The zone borders a portion of Myanmar that is considered one of the world’s most profitable illicit drug manufacturing hubs, pumping out billions of dollars worth of methamphetamine a year.
Zhao denies these allegations and says he is a legitimate investor who hopes to transform the GTSEZ into a major tourist destination, bringing jobs to one of the world’s poorest places. Zhao regularly appears alongside Laotian government officials in public relations material posted by the zone on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform.
Since cases have spiked in Laos, the GTSEZ WeChat channel has been actively showcasing its efforts to fight the pandemic, including a post last week about the zone’s $2.5 million donation to the Laotian government to fight Covid-19. Another post showed what appeared to be the baroque, marbled interior of the casino being used as a vaccination or testing center.
The GTSEZ WeChat channel has also regularly reminded people inside the district to practice social distancing. Group gatherings are limited to five people, and any close contacts of cases are required to practice home isolation and get tested regularly.
However, cases are still on the rise throughout Bokeo province. Of the 69 cases reported in Laos on Sunday, 46 came from Bokeo. The province was also responsible for 15 of the 25 positive cases identified Monday, state media reported.
Experts worry the outbreak could be much larger than reported. Laos is one of the region’s most impoverished countries and lacks the same capacity to sufficiently test, track and trace coronavirus patients as its wealthier neighbors. Thailand and China have both sent assistance to Laos in recent days to help it deal with the outbreak, according to Laotian state media.
More than 82,000 people in Laos had received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine as of Monday, according to the government-run Lao News Agency.