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Ministry of Health should pick up the pace on COVID-19 pandemic

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Health Ministry officials take bio samples of people suspected of COVID-19 infection. BTV

Khmer Times has criticised the Ministry of Health on several occasions and even suggested for the minister to be replaced in the pending Cabinet reshuffle. Leadership change within the Ministry of Health would help Cambodia to better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will also go a long way in restoring or rather re-establishing confidence in Cambodia’s public health system, something which has been lacking for decades.

Strong leadership with clear strategic plans and community strategy will help mitigate the risks and impacts deriving from this unprecedented global public health crisis. The health minister is not qualified to cope with the crisis.

The ministry’s handling of the current COVID-19 Pandemic is ineffective in many aspects. Chief among these is the lack of preparedness and readiness in responding to a large-scale outbreak of the pandemic. Strategic thinking and planning are lacking.

Public communication is another issue here. The late evening or night release of a statement on the number of the infected is absurd. The information was already widely circulated before the official statement. The statement itself lacks the information on travel history, the condition of the infected, and cluster analysis.

As one ministry official, exasperated with the situation, revealed to Khmer Times, “The official announcement is being delayed to late evening or even night so that when the news breaks, people may be in bed and will miss the immediate impact of the news.”

This assumption, if true, is nonsensical as official announcements are better than social media circulated “citizen journalism” reports that are not factually accurate, speculative and even exaggerated greatly. A case in point is the information coming out of Sihanoukville last night which stated that police were cordoning off Sihanoukville when only the Independent Hotel was being cordoned off.

More importantly, do the hospitals where they are being quarantined have the necessary medical equipment and personnel to administer treatment such as ventilators and antiretroviral drugs, sufficient hazmat suits and related equipment and materials? The Ministry should provide information on the medical equipment that it currently has and how many more ventilators and protective gear equipment it needs.

Cambodia has seen a late surge in the virus and as such had time to prepare and put adequate mechanisms in place to release information and details as well as pertinent information on the number of infections as such information, when read by the masses at large could play a part in identifying possible contacts of infected persons. Another example is a Cambodian who had been tracked down for being in close proximity with a COVID-19-positive patient in the province. Instead of immediately bringing the suspect in for testing, the officials concerned merely told the suspect to go for testing. The next day the suspect, together with his family of seven, left for the city. This makes contact tracing more difficult.

Without strict control on people’s movement, effective contact tracing and proactive testing, community transmission of the virus will likely to surge in the coming days and weeks.

The Ministry of Health must step up its game. Failure to do so will see Cambodia facing more cases. The lack of detailed and timely official information will spur speculation and fake news, This is dangerous because it will create panic.

In addition to public awareness campaign on personal hygiene such as washing hands, information and analysis on clusters of the outbreak, contact tracing, and testing are important preventive measures. The Ministry of Health must implement these measures seriously before it is too late.

The Ministry should get out of its reactive stance and adopt a more vigorous, coherent and cohesive preemptive stance and measures to calm a jittery public.

The good point is that two patients have been successfully treated. One has since returned home and the other was discharged on Sunday. However, here again there is lack of transparency on the method of treatments used, what was the severity of the cases and related information such as travel history.

These are essentials that the Ministry of Health cannot ignore anymore because to do so will be suicidal if there is another double digit spike in the coming days or hours.

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