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Southeast Asia Suffers Sharp Increase In COVID-19 Infections, Deaths

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The overwhelming number of COVID cases in India struck a country that once seemed to have it under control. It's a similar story in Thailand and Cambodia. Both countries succeeded for months, only to see sharp increases in infections and deaths. Michael Sullivan has been watching.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is Mae Sai, the northernmost town in all of Thailand. It's a major border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. And normally, it's a very busy place with lots of people and lots of two-way trade across the bridge here and one just down the road. But that trade slowed to a trickle after Thailand sealed its borders over a year ago to keep out COVID. The strategy was a huge success until now. With a new wave of infections sweeping the country Mae Sai is now a ghost town.

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SULLIVAN: Authorities say the most recent outbreak started earlier this month in venues like this one in an upscale Bangkok neighborhood - clubs popular with wealthy Thais, government officials and foreigners, where social distancing measures and masks were scarce. By last weekend, the club cluster had spread all over the country with record daily increases in confirmed infections.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Today, again, we have some very grim news. The new number of confirmed cases, 2,438...

SULLIVAN: That's 20 times higher than the average daily increase just a few months ago. Some health care professionals are now urging a full lockdown before the public health system is overwhelmed. But the government has balked even as it's come under fire for what critics call a botched vaccine rollout, with less than 2% of the population getting their first shot.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: It has been bungled on a poor bet from the beginning with poor calculations. And I think the Thai government has a lot to answer to the public.

SULLIVAN: Chulalongkorn University professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak says that poor bet was relying on a single company to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Thailand, one owned by Thailand's king. But the local version still isn't ready. A backstop of Chinese vaccines isn't enough. And the government is now scrambling belatedly to source others.

PONGSUDHIRAK: And this could have wide-ranging ramifications for Thailand's economic recovery, Thailand's positioning in the world economy moving forward.

SULLIVAN: Especially for the hard-hit tourism sector, which was set to reopen this summer, beginning with the island of Phuket. Neighboring Cambodia has fared better. But it, too, is now posting record daily increases. That prompted this dire warning from Prime Minister Hun Sen two weeks ago.

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PRIME MINISTER HUN SEN: (Through interpreter) Please join hands to end this pandemic. We are at the brink of death. We need to join hands to transform this situation.

SULLIVAN: The capital, Phnom Penh, is now under strict lockdown, with some areas declared red zones, with markets closed and people confined to their homes. Virak Ou heads the Future Forum think tank in Phnom Penh.

VIRAK OU: The measures that have been in place is going to create a different kind of problem. And that is going to be a crisis of food insecurity.

SULLIVAN: He says that's because the red zones are home to some of the city's poorest, garment workers, day laborers, many of whom, he says, are already out of work because of the virus.

OU: Even if the markets are open, they would be struggling to buy food. But now the markets are not open. The food handouts promised by the government are not there. I'm not sure how long they can last.

SULLIVAN: He's still hopeful the government can turn things around, with roughly 10% of the population vaccinated so far.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "DOUBLE SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.