PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA – Amid rising caseloads of coronavirus infections as it emerges from a strict COVID lockdown, Cambodia is pinning its hopes on a vaccination rollout that will help the nation reach herd immunity, even as the nation confronts unique challenges that could hamper that effort.
Daily case numbers reached a record high of 1,130 Wednesday, far more than reported in April, when severe lockdowns, bans on alcohol sales and travel between provinces were imposed.
Cambodia, though, like most developing countries, faces a range of problems not typically associated with wealthier countries in the West, particularly overcrowding in the capital, Phnom Penh, where several people often rent one room, in some cases one bed, to find a few hours’ sleep, away from the grind outside.
Bradley Murg, a senior adviser to the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, told VOA people here simply don’t have the space, security, or access to health services and supermarkets as those in the leafy suburbs of Western cities in countries such as the United States or Australia.
“In a highly densely populated city like Phnom Penh, it’s incredibly difficult to implement a lockdown effectively even with a whole-of-government approach,” he said.
“There are naturally going to be challenges in light of the level of development, in light of the daily needs of the population et cetera,” he added.
“Ultimately a permanent lockdown or long-term lockdown is simply not a feasible strategy in Cambodia or in Phnom Penh specifically.”
The closure of markets resulted in food shortages and price gouging, with authorities struggling to enforce lockdowns after dividing the capital into yellow, orange and red zones, depending on case numbers and transmissions – with red areas containing the greatest risks.
Restrictions have eased, but schools, bars, gyms and many other businesses remain closed, while restaurant hours have been curtailed with strict social distancing and other health measures in place.
Hang Sokunthea, an academic and author of I Am a Daughter, a book about female empowerment in Cambodia, said life during the pandemic has been harsh on the poor.
“A lot of the poor families live very close to each other, which is where a lot of the red zones was located, where they live together and then they spread the COVID infection even faster,” she told VOA.
Moreover, she said, “without the market, without having the living income, they just cannot really make much of a living,” she said.
The situation resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between the police and vendors, Hang Sokunthea said, adding, “they were just selling anything on the streets even with the police chasing them.”
Keo Savady is a small business operator, selling clothes online, and, like many from Cambodia’s burgeoning middle classes, she too is feeling the pinch after losing her job at the Hard Rock Cafe in Phnom Penh.
“The bad thing is I just start my new online business, a small online business, and it doesn’t work because of the situation, COVID-19 is not so good,” she said, adding, “me and my family, some of them lost their job, so we had to find a smaller room.”
Cambodia had emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic during its first year but that changed on Feb. 20 when, authorities say, two Chinese women bribed their way out of quarantine, went out dancing and spread the disease.
Since then, the number of confirmed cases has climbed from less than 500 to more than 50,000 with more than 44,143 recoveries and 602 deaths.
However, Cambodia is ranked second, after Singapore, in its vaccination rollout among the 10 Association of South East Asian Nations countries after securing about 11 million doses of Sinopharm and Sinovac from China.
It says a total of 20 million doses will be secured by August, while funding from Australia and the United States has enabled access to the COVAX-facility and AstraZenica vaccinations.
“When one places Singapore in comparison to Cambodia in terms of level of development, level of infrastructure etcetera – it’s truly remarkable that Cambodia’s had this level of success in its all-of-government campaign to rollout vaccinations as quickly as possible,” Murg said.
“The kingdom is well on track towards meeting its goals and it’s a story that has not received nearly the attention it deserves,” he added.
Almost 18% of Cambodia’s population of 16.5 million people have been fully vaccinated with two doses, while a quarter of its population have received a single dose.
Cambodia hopes to reach herd immunity with 10 million people vaccinated by the end of the year and it wants to reopen its tourism industry in the fourth quarter to fully vaccinated tourists.