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Stuck in Africa, Vietnamese Workers Forced to Work Despite Rampant Covid-19 Cases

On the afternoon of July 11, the people of Lãng Thanh Commune (in Yên Thành District, Nghệ An Province), rejoiced as Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc announced that Vietnamese workers in Equatorial Guinea were to be flown home as soon as possible. 

The prime minister has arranged an aircraft to bring home 219 Vietnamese workers from the small country in central Africa that is struggling to cope with the breakout of COVID-19, according to VTV News. Phu Nu Online reports that there are 200 Vietnamese working at the Sendje hydroelectric site in Littoral Province, Equatorial Guinea. Overall, 22 of them have tested positive for COVID-19.

Both the husband and older brother of 28-year-old Hồ Thị Phương of Lãng Thanh Commune left for Equatorial Guinea to find work in September 2019. She told Phu Nu Online: "I feel like I came back to life when I heard the prime minister instructing an increase in rescue flights to immediately bring Equatorial Guinea workers home."

The wife of Nguyễn Bá L., Phương's 32-year-old brother, shared the same sentiment: “His health is getting better now. But I still hope that everyone will return home soon to be treated better. No matter how expensive or how much money we have to borrow, as long as he can come home to get treatment, we’ll accept it.”

While flying the stranded workers home is a priority, aviation authorities and Vietnam Airlines — which has been tasked with conducting the flights — are facing a number of challenges in arranging them, such as a lack of crucial infrastructure at Equatorial Guinea's airports. At the time of writing, repatriation is expected to take place on August 3.

The workers and their family members first called for help via Facebook on July 2. They claimed that the general contractor was forcing employees to work even though many at the construction site had tested positive for the virus, with many more showing symptoms. Meanwhile, the contractor allegedly cut off the internet in the dormitory to prevent workers from communicating with the outside world and threatened to starve and evict them if they refused to work. 

The workers also said that those infected are being treated in a "very worrying" way, and the situation for workers with signs of infection who are awaiting test results in isolation is no better. 

Most Vietnamese workers at the Sendje construction site are employees of Hanoi-based CMVietnam Joint Stock Company, while the rest belong to Lilama 10 Joint Stock Company and Tan Dai Loi Company. These three subcontractors are working on the Sendje hydropower construction project.

CMVietnam did not disclose the name of the general contractor company in order to "keep this information of the general contractor confidential as decided in the contract." An investigation conducted by Phu Nu Online suggests that Douglas Joint Venture Company (UK) is the general contractor of this project. 

Since April 10, when Vietnam started flights to bring overseas Vietnamese home, there have been 55 flights carrying more than 13,000 people home. So far, only a quarter of citizens stuck abroad have returned in the past three months for a range of reasons, including limited permits for Vietnamese commercial aircraft in some countries, a 14-day quarantine period required for crews after every flight, and space available in isolation areas. Now, the number of Vietnamese people in need of returning home has reached 50,000, and Prime Minister Phúc has decided that 14,000 more people can return to Vietnam.

[Photos: Vietnamese workers at the Sendje hydropower construction project/Cuoc Song An Toan]