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Ministry of Health must produce data and analysis

A doctor collects a sample from a Cambodian patient to test for COVID-19 at the capital’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital. Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital

After 38 days of COVID-19 free days, the sterling run was broken with two Cambodian nationals being tested positive for the deadly virus on Thursday and Friday, after returning from abroad. This brought the total number of COVID-19 positive cases to 124, although the Cambodians remain the two active cases.

All others have been discharged gradually from various hospitals and referral centres in the country. The virus had infected people in 13 provinces and the Cambodian Ministry of Health is convinced, probably rightly so, that most of the cases are imported.

However, along the sidelines, observers, both in the know and in closed circles, are debating the figures provided by the Ministry and its statistics.

According to the Health Ministry’s Communicable Disease Control Department (CDC), a total of 15,830 specimen samples have been taken to date.

When broken down, this comes to 974 tests per million in terms of population, which by itself is not a bad figure when compared with many other countries in the region and across the world.

Up to May 23, there were a total of 5,391,462 positive cases around the globe with 343,498 deaths and 2,235,915 recoveries. All these numbers continue to rise by the hour. 2,812,049 patients are currently active cases 53,536 are in a critical condition. Cambodia, in contrast, has two active cases.

Southeast Asia, as of Friday, May 22, had 175, 521 cases of COVID-19.

Testing data available shows that Singapore had the highest number of tests per million as of May 18 with 15, 619, followed by Malaysia with 15,005 as of May 22, Philippines with 2,753 as of May 21, Vietnam at 2,644 as of May 20, Thailand with 1,293 as of May 7, Myanmar at 183 as of May 6, Lao PDR at 144 as of April 20.

Testing is critical to identify whether a person is infected with COVID-19. Studies indicate that it could take anywhere between 2-14 days after the exposure for the symptoms to be visible. Hence, testing helps to Identify the infected individuals and restrict their social movement, else they could unknowingly move around and spread the infection, provide the required care for the infected and take necessary measures and understand the spread of infection so that authorities can plan more effectively in tackling the pandemic.

As of 18 May, the countries that published their testing data have on average performed a number of tests equal to only 2.4 percent of their population and no country has tested samples equal to more than 16.6 percent of its population.

Without data on COVID-19 health officials and governments cannot possibly understand how the pandemic is progressing and, consequently, cannot respond appropriately to the threat; neither as individuals nor as a society.

In addition, according to ourworldindata.org, countries and governments cannot learn where and what countermeasures against the pandemic are working.

The number of confirmed cases is what informs us about the development of the pandemic.

But the confirmation of a case is based on a test. The World Health Organization defines a confirmed case as “a person with laboratory confirmation of COVID-19 infection”.

Reliable data on testing is therefore necessary to assess the reliability of the data that informs us about the spread of the pandemic: the data on cases and deaths.

Different countries publish their testing data according to different definitions. In order to make meaningful comparisons between countries and over time, the figures need to be interpreted alongside an understanding of these differences.

This means that, in addition to the numbers, detailed descriptions are needed to make clear what the numbers precisely mean. For each country in our dataset, we provide source descriptions detailing all the information that we have been able to find. However, many countries currently do not provide sufficient documentation.

For citizens to trust and understand the published data, and for countries to learn from each other, it is crucial that every country provides the data on testing in a clearly documented way. For example, it does not make sense to announce that two new cases have appeared without giving the number of people tested on the same day and where. Trust is created with credibility. Credibility requires accurate and complete data. This is sorely lacking with the Ministry of Health.

This is evident people threw caution to the winds and resumed their daily normal when everywhere else, and despite the premier’s repeated calls, life not normal is the norm. They are also questioning in whispers as to why schools and businesses are not opened to give the economy a desperately needed boost.

To answer all these, there have to be daily data outputs. Not just mere number of positive cases and recoveries. What treatment was administered? How many required ventilators? The questions can go on and on.

Without accurate and forthcoming data, policymakers will be unable to kick start the battered economy which is languishing. Unfortunately, no matter what is said about China it seems to be the only country that has the ability to push outbound tourism.

Inbound tourism will help the shattered and shuttered hospitality and services industry, which generates cash for the economy and important tax dollars for Cambodia. The Ministry of Health’s decisions in reopening museums but not the hospitality and service industry sends mixed signals.

One is dependent on the other. Domestic tourism alone cannot kick start the economy. It needs hard currency inflow. The hospitality and service industry has tens of thousands of multiplier effects in terms of informal sectors such as suppliers of groceries and products as well as fresh produce.

Telling the whole world Cambodia is almost rid of COVID-19 but not convincing anyone of this, except maybe the Ministry of Health themselves, is not a wise thing. Trust builds confidence and this will be the key driver for the rebirth of the economy.

If this is lacking, Cambodia will be left behind as others open up their economy. Cambodia will be on the red list for COVID-19 when it may not be the case in reality. The ball is in the feet of the Ministry of Health and its advice to the Task Force.

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