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More stringent measures on the way to combat Coronavirus

Health workers in front of the isolation room in Kampong Cham province. KT/Chor Sokunthea

The Khmer New Year, which will be celebrated in mid-April, is a time for family gatherings and visits to pagodas. Usually there is a big crowd at the pagodas and some tourist sites. Such large gatherings will pose serious risk on virus infections among and between communities.

Learning from the recent religious gathering in Malaysia, the virus has spread quickly like bushfire within the country and across the region. Cambodia for instance has been hard hit by the imported cases from Malaysia.

This raises the question as to what measures could be implemented by the authorities to prevent community transmission of virus, while preserving Khmer culture.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued additional measures to control the movement of people such as the closure of casinos. He continues to urge Cambodians to stay healthy, protect themselves from being infected and to take strict measures to protect the health and wellbeing of family and community.

Addressing the question concerning Khmer New Year celebrations, the Prime Minister called upon every Cambodians to celebrate the event at home and avoid organising or attending community gatherings. This is a wise move to prevent the spread of the virus. However, implementation and enforcement of the order is another matter.

Over the past week, Cambodia has experienced an influx of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand. Around 50,000 Cambodian workers in Thailand have returned home. This causes the risk of community transmission if contact tracking and screening lapses.

Some could be carriers but do not show symptoms. Such cases are really hard to detect. For example, the French tour group of whom 31 were infected had been in direct or indirect contact with several hundreds of local people in Siem Reap and possibly hundreds more in Battambang, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. It is virtually impossible to trace all of them.

Contact tracing and detection are relatively weak in Cambodia. There is currently no clear, detailed analysis on different clusters of infections. More technical support from the international donor community is needed for these measures.

So far, China, Japan, the United States, and Germany have provided assistance to Cambodia to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has significantly contributed to Cambodia’s efforts in this global war against the pandemic.

To effectively control the movement of people, some countries have implemented draconian measures such as lockdowns and the ban on public gatherings of more than two people. Cambodia has opted for a medium-range measure which means it will not shut the country down or hugely disrupt people’s movements and business operations.

The government is in the process of drafting an emergency law. It is expected that the draft law will be released to the public this week. The issues that need to be discussed are the scope and operational nature of the emergency law. When the law is adopted the state will have more judicial power to impose more stringent restrictions and measures, especially to intervene in the market and in social lives.

More concrete measures will be also taken to ensure food security in the country. Rice exports, except fragrant rice, will be banned. National supply chains of food will be assessed and strengthened.

Other economic measures will include cutting interest rates, providing financial assistance to the industries that are severely affected, a moratorium on loan repayments on principle amount for businesses which depends on such loans for  cash flow and allocate social fund to support the most vulnerable population. The details of the economic and social policy are not yet released.

Cambodia needs to be prepared for a long-term fight against the pandemic and long-term solutions to social and economic fallout. The crisis will hit us much harder than we thought earlier.

Public confidence in the government is the key, without which the whole governance system might collapse. Just try to survive.

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