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Aggressive measures needed to fight COVID-19 in Cambodia and region, says WHO

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A face book photo of the congregation held in Malaysia late February and early March. Despite the more than 500 tested positive from this congregation, thousands have gathered in Indonesia for a similar event, raising fears of another major spike in infections. Facebook

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday said that South East Asia should step up “aggressive measures” in the battle against the spreading coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

As infections in the region continue to rise, countries are forced to close borders and schools, along with partial lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The WHO’s South East Asia region comprises 11 countries, almost all of which have now recorded coronavirus cases.

Cambodia’s rate of infection more than tripled within a spate of 10 days to 37 as of Wednesday night. The authorities in Cambodia are now facing the real possibility of a community or a cluster outbreak, especially after more than Cambodians had returned from Malaysia early March from a congregation.

The number of infections, from those in Cambodia who attended the congregation as well as five Malaysians, also from the same congregation but who had traveled to Cambodia to take part in smaller congregations were also infected.

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO South East Asia region, said that “more clusters of virus transmission are being confirmed”.

“We clearly need to do more, and urgently.”

Many regional countries outside the WHO’s definition of South East Asia have had a slow response to the outbreak, only taking drastic measures in recent weeks or days as the number of cases continue to grow.

Malaysia, which now has the highest number of cases in the region at 790 as of Wednesday noon and two deaths. They  did not put any strict social distancing measures in place until it saw a huge leap in the number of cases.

Most of the country’s infections have been linked to a religious gathering that was attended by around 16,000 people.

Malaysia has now locked down its borders, banning the entry of all travellers. Schools in the country have also been closed.

Cambodia too has seen border closures with Vietnam, Thailand and Lao and flight restrictions to some countries in Europe as well as ban on entries from US, Iran, Germany, Spain, France and Italy.

In nearby Indonesia, which according to John Hopkins has 172 recorded cases of the virus, President Joko Widodo admitted recently that he deliberately held back information about the spread of the virus to prevent panic.

The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte had earlier in February joked that he wanted to “slap” the virus. The Philippines has now introduced sweeping quarantine measures that have left millions confined in the capital, Manila.

Myanmar and Laos have both not reported any cases of the virus – though experts have seriously doubted the credibility of this.

A spokesperson for Myanmar’s government claimed that people’s “lifestyle and diet” have protected them from the virus.

There are also no cases of the virus in Timor-Leste.

The apathy shows as in Indonesia, thousands of pilgrims from across Asia gathered in Indonesia on Wednesday (March 18), despite fears that their meeting could fuel the spread of a coronavirus, just two weeks after a similar event in Malaysia caused more than 500 infections and a sudden spike in Cambodia where recent infections involved those who had participated in the Malaysian event. WHO/Khmer Times

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