After Cambodia reported its first case of COVID-19 community transmission on November 28 at Aeon 1 Mall in Phnom Penh, facemasks have become a part of the dress code in Phnom Penh as once-busy street corners and shops have emptied.
But according to locals and foreigners interviewed in the capital, expats appear more resistant to wearing masks consistently or hunkering down indoors to prevent the spread of the virus.
Anti-mask activists are in good company outside of Asia and Southeast Asia, where anti-mask rallies have been held, notably in the West, since mask requirements became the norm. A rally in Vancouver, Canada recently drew 400 anti-mask protesters denouncing virus prevention measures, according to Global News.
While no anti-mask rallies are planned for Phnom Penh, some of the anti-mask sentiment appears to exist.
On Monday, Pietro Tartaglia, a foreign teacher based in Phnom Penh was walking in Tuol Tompoung with a mask dangling from his arm which was gifted to him by a local shop owner.
He said if he’s walking around town he typically won’t wear a mask, although he does make sure to maintain a respectable distance from others. He wears a mask at his school, where it’s required, but normally, he prefers to live mask-free as it affects his breathing.
The young art teacher and yoga practitioner admitted that the virus has had wide-ranging negative impacts throughout the globe and he said he respects the concerns people have about it.
But he’s not scared of it, and said he’s not even sure it’s real.
“I’m still unsure where I stand in believing the whole [coronavirus] thing,” he said.
Nak Chheng, a Phnom Penh resident who offers physical and mental well-being training to local police said he never leaves home without a mask.
“When I’m outside the house, I always wear a mask,” he said. “I like to protect myself.”
A young economic development student at the Royal University of Law and Economics, who only wished to be known as Rathana, had similar beliefs and said he only travels from home to his part-time job to decrease his chances of contracting or spreading COVID-19.
“The main reason is to protect yourself from the coronavirus,” he said.
He said he’s also seen the amount of elderly casualties in the US and Italy and didn’t want to see older people suffer in Cambodia.
Rathana added that some foreigners seemed to care less about the virus and theorised it was because they see so many others wearing masks that it somehow absolves their responsibility to wear one.
A New Zealander, who identified himself as Trevor, said he and his wife have been wearing masks since the beginning of the outbreak in March.
“When COVID hit the first time, we were very conscious to show locals that we care,” he said.
But he said he’s noticed not all foreigners feel the same way. He said he was put off when a Westerner walked into Super Duper without a mask, something he called “totally unfair to the staff”.
When asked why foreigners may be wary of masks, he guessed it was either ignorance or arrogance and expressed frustration with “non-believers”.
He also urged foreigners to mask up. “Foreigners have a real obligation to wear masks and keep people safe,” he said. “We’re visitors here.”
Chheng said he’s also observed that some foreigners seem reluctant to wear a mask while in public.
“A lot of foreigners don’t wear masks and they travel a lot,” he said. “I’m a little bit upset when they don’t wear masks. They have their own lives to protect. Why don’t they protect their own lives?”
Some foreigners believe in wearing a mask, but simply don’t prioritise it.
An Italian expat, who gave his name as Andrea and has been living in Cambodia since 2018, said: “Sometimes I forget to put the mask on, which I wear more out of respect for others than out of real necessity.”
He said he was surprised when he visited Aeon 1 Mall on Saturday and found it almost empty, along with restaurants in the area, and added that he doesn’t think a catastrophic outbreak will occur in Cambodia.
“I believe that the virus exists but if we compare the situation in Europe or the US with that of Cambodia, perhaps here in Cambodia the situation is not so alarming,” he said.
“There is alarmism on the part of the Cambodians, but I believe it is not so justified. I do not think we will arrive at the European situation. It is good to protect yourself and others, but without panic… just take the precautions, wash your hands and wear the mask,” he added.
Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said it was imperative to follow preventive measures to contain the virus and added that wearing a mask properly was essential, but this needed to be combined with practising social distancing and hand-washing with alcohol or soap to be wholly effective.
She also mentioned adhering to the avoidance of the “three Cs,” referring to avoiding contact with infected people, crowded areas and closed spaces with little ventilation.
“This is what we are trying to persuade our public to implement. At least we can minimise the risk of transmission,” she said.