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How should Cambodia respond to the new Coronavirus?

A medical worker takes a passenger's body temperature at Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, Jan. 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu)

Rumours had been abounding for the past week that the deadly novel Coronavirus had already found its way to Cambodia from Wuhan. They placed the number of cases from five to 10. The Ministry of Health was firm in its denial.

The numbers are still mere speculation, but the risk of infection is very real. Last night, the Ministry of Health confirmed that there was one case in Sihahoukville. Three more of the victim’s family members who travelled together with the infected patient are under observation. Just because their blood tests may not have been positive does not mean authorities should exclude them from being placed under quarantine.

The fact that the Chinese health ministry has also proclaimed that the virus is developing the ability to spread more easily before experiencing symptoms should be cause for alarm. That’s a significant difference from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus, which began in China in 2002 and spread globally, killing 774 people.

The Chinese announcement about the new coronavirus’s transmissibility could explain the soaring rate of infection in China, which registered a 50 percent jump in cases on Sunday and more deaths being reported daily, all in China while more countries around the globe are announcing cases as well. If it can happen in China which has a far better healthcare system, it could happen here.

Foreign governments with their nationals stranded in Wuhan have scrambled to evacuate their citizens from the epicentre of the outbreak, even as China imposed official travel bans.

Scientists have said that the virus is adapting to humans much faster than SARS did. It took the SARS virus three months to mutate into a form that spread easily among humans, but the related Wuhan Coronavirus took only one month.

Cambodia, in the face of this, must take aggressive measures. All the airports must implement strict health monitoring measures for inbound flights, especially from China. Public awareness on how to prevent the infection must be massively sped up. Wearing masks and gloves, cleaning hands with soaps and warm water, avoiding crowded places where body contact is highly likely and avoiding unnecessary travel to China are some basic measures to keep the virus away.

The government, particularly the Health Ministry needs to impose serious measures to contain the virus from spreading. Because the case was confirmed in Sihanoukville, the inbound and even the outbound  travel from this city needs to be carefully monitored.

Moreover, the Foreign Ministry must coordinate with the Chinese authorities about the fate of Cambodian citizens and students studying in various parts of China.

Then there are the travellers who have been in China for business and tourism to coincide with the Spring Festival. Most travellers coming into Cambodia from any one of the three airports in Cambodia will testify to a different scenario than that painted by the authorities.

While there are screening processes in some establishments, the same cannot be said of the three airports where officials merely wait at the entrance of the arrival lounge leading to immigration and rely on forms handed out to passengers or on-site on ground at the terminal.

In China, most airports have stringent human temperature-measuring devices where passengers arriving are screened individually. In Cambodia, this is not in place yet.  Cambodia usually only reacts when an outbreak is reported elsewhere. The reactionary measure is slow, let alone proactive.

Just because Cambodia had success in containing the SARS virus in 2003 and the suspected MERS virus outbreak last year (even then there were limited precautions), it doesn’t mean the virus cannot slip through as passengers can find ways to control their body temperature such as rigorously washing their faces and neck before entering the screening area and so forth.

Western media have reported that two teams of British epidemiologists have released studies that  estimate that each infected person is spreading the disease to two or three people and, at this rate, if confirmed, this would mean that the number of infected victims in Wuhan alone could reach 200,000 within a week.

Scary thought indeed but this editorial is not about doomsday theory or a condemnation of the health authorities in Cambodia. It is a wakeup call to take more stringent measures to monitor all travellers entering Cambodia at all checkpoints, especially airports.

This is because, once inside the country, like the case in Sihanoukville, it could spread like wildfire as information provided on medical forms to passengers may not be accurate and is often misleading.

As one establishment practices, every individual entering its premises is given a temperature check individually and masks are handed out to each of them before being allowed to enter. This may be inconvenient to passengers arriving in their hundreds, but it is a necessary measure.

Given the fact that there are confirmed to be up to 40 Cambodian students still in China and many more tourists, numbers which could not be immediately ascertained.

Cambodia should be more than adequately prepared to combat this health menace before it becomes a pandemic here.

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