In less than a week, Cambodia recorded more than 1,000 cases of the virus. As of Wednesday, 35 people had died.
This compares to less than 500 cases in the pandemic’s first year, and no COVID-19-related deaths have been reported at all.
On Thursday, the government ordered all residents of the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Ta Khmau district to stay in their homes unless they need to buy food or seek treatment.
The lockdown comes in the middle of the Khmer New Year, a three-day national holiday, which began on Wednesday, and typically sees thousands of Cambodians travel to their home provinces to celebrate.
Earlier in the week, the WHO pleaded with people to stay home.
“We are on the verge of a national tragedy because of COVID-19. Despite our best efforts, we are struggling to control the virus. New cases are emerging every day and we are running against the virus, ”said Dr Li Ailan, WHO Representative in Cambodia.
“Unless we can stop the epidemic, the Cambodian health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed, which would have dire consequences.”
Cambodia had previously only experienced small clusters of COVID-19 that were quickly brought under control, but Dr Li says the emergence of the UK variant of COVID-19 – officially known as variant B.1.1. 7 – meant things were different this time around.
“Variant B.1.1.7 spreads more easily between people and can cause serious illness,” she said. “Many countries with strong health systems have been overwhelmed by this variant. We have to make sure that the same does not happen in Cambodia. “
All of the new cases are linked to an outbreak known as the February 20 event, marking the date it was first detected. The origin has been traced to four Chinese nationals who allegedly bribed security guards to leave hotel quarantine before the end of their mandatory 14-day stay. Reports say the group arrived from Dubai, one of more than 90 countries where B.1.1.7 has now spread.
In a speech last Saturday, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged that “bad governance” was a factor in the worsening of the epidemic, which is responsible for all of the more than 30 virus-related deaths in Cambodia and has pushed the total number of cases in the country to more. more than 4,500.
At least 50 people who tested positive for COVID-19 gave false information about their address, leaving authorities unable to locate them.
Causing further alarm, the virus has spread through the clothing industry, which provides work for millions of people and is a crucial part of the economy. So far, at least 50 infections have been detected at Din Han’s factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, and advocates fear more workers are vulnerable.
May Sopheaktra, secretary general of the president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), said workers themselves were increasingly concerned about the risk.
Sopheaktra added that surveillance in factories was insufficient to ensure workers were following COVID-19 guidelines, such as social distancing.
“The clothing industry is not closely watched,” he said, adding that the digital thermometers used at the sites appeared to be faulty.
Transportation is also a major concern, he said. The factories employ thousands of people, mostly women, from poor rural areas. Many commute to and from work in well-packed trucks. While the trucks are open to the air, they are packed with passengers.
“When they’re in trucks, they don’t have social distancing, 30 to 40 of them in the same truck at a time.”
Other hot spots include several local markets, which are also teeming with traders and shoppers from across the country.
Dr Michael Kinzer, program director in the Division of Global Health Protection (DGHP) for CDC Cambodia, said these areas were at high risk.
“There are locations that are called ‘three C’s,’ and the three C’s represent close quarters, crowded and confined. And if you want to think of an example, a KTV [karaoke television lounge] would be a good example where everyone is indoors in a crowded confined space talking drinking, these are high risk environments, ”Dr Kinzer told Al Jazeera.
“We are seeing transmission among family members, so people who share the same household, people who eat and drink together because you can’t wear a mask while you eat and drink. People driving cars. This is another risk factor. “
Travel ban, curfew
In an attempt to curb the outbreak, the government has introduced a series of severe restrictions and penalties for those who break the rules.
Hun Sen recently threatened those who violated measures – which include banning travel between districts, compulsory masks and a nighttime curfew in the capital and other areas – with immediate arrest. and prison.
Some areas of Phnom Penh with a particularly high number of COVID-19 cases have also been closed and cordoned off with roadblocks with police and military police teams.
Cambodia has one of the most underfunded health systems in the region. The most recent figures from the World Bank show that only 5% of public spending is spent on health care, compared to 9% in Vietnam and 15% in Thailand. The burden is borne by the Cambodians themselves: 57% of the country’s health expenditure is “out of pocket” – only Myanmar, at 76%, is higher.
Cambodia also has the region’s lowest figure for hospital beds per 1,000 population – at 0.9. Access to health care is also particularly difficult for poor Cambodians in rural provinces, according to studies.
To meet potential demand, the government has turned a hotel and a large wedding center into makeshift COVID-19 hospitals, adding more than 5,000 beds, according to local media. He also asked COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home.
The authorities are also rushing to distribute vaccines, now mandatory for civil servants and the military. The majority of Cambodia’s vaccine stocks come from China, which has donated one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine. Cambodia has also purchased the Sinovac vaccine.
It also has access to AstraZeneca vaccine stocks through the UN-backed COVAX program, which helps poor countries access vaccine stocks.
Over the weekend, the government announced that it had administered the 1,000,000th jab.
“Well, we have a few tools that we didn’t have last year,” Dr. Kinzer said. “One of them is of course vaccines. And vaccines should help us reduce the number of susceptible people. And the number of serious cases. “
Kinzer warns, however, that the current pace of the outbreak is beyond the capacity of contract research workers as new cases have been discovered outside of their known contact lists.
“So we have to expect this to last for several more weeks, even if we are successful,” he said.