Cambodia ‘on the Brink of a National Tragedy’: WHO

3 min read
WHO’s Cambodia representative Li Ailan in 2020. (Hy Chhay/VOD)

Covid-19 has been spreading through Phnom Penh restaurants, markets, small businesses, private gatherings and parties, and Cambodia stands “on the brink of a national tragedy” unless the outbreak is stopped, the World Health Organization said in a statement issued Saturday.

“This outbreak is different from previous outbreaks in Cambodia,” said country representative Li Ailan. “The B.1.1.7 variant spreads more easily between people and can cause serious illness. Many countries with strong health systems have been overwhelmed by this variant. We need to ensure the same doesn’t happen to Cambodia.”

The B.1.1.7 variant of Covid-19, first identified in the U.K., emerged in Cambodia in February. The variant is thought to be very infectious and causes more serious symptoms.

The WHO’s warning was issued ahead of the upcoming Khmer New Year holidays, over which the government has issued an inter-provincial travel ban.

The country is in the midst of its worst Covid-19 outbreak to date, with more than 1,000 new cases announced over the past two days.

Many have been linked to popular and crowded markets in the capital, such as O’Russei, Doeum Kor and Boeng Trabek Plaza, and a garment factory in Meanchey district.

The WHO said that in the past two weeks the virus had been spreading in Phnom Penh restaurants, markets, small businesses, private gatherings and parties.

“We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of COVID-19. Despite our best efforts, we are struggling to control the virus,” Li said. “Unless we can stop the outbreak, Cambodia’s health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed, which would have disastrous consequences.”

Li’s message echoed that of Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine, who issued a voice message around 1 a.m. Friday urging the country’s residents to follow health protocols.

“I could not sleep because I was still tired of asking why some people have not taken the preventative measures that could cut off the Covid-19 virus. If I could do it for them, I would definitely do it for them, but if I did it, it would only protect me and my family from transmitting this deadly disease,” Vandine said in the recording, posted to the Health Ministry’s Facebook page.

Phnom Penh authorities have ordered lockdowns in two communes and seven villages, with households only permitted to go out to buy supplies two times a week. Many of the new cases have also been linked to a garment factory in Meanchey district that employs more than 2,000 people. Over 630 people linked to the factory now have Covid-19, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech on Saturday morning.

The WHO, which commended the government’s interventions, said Cambodians should stay home for Khmer New Year, and the country needed to be “ahead of the curve.”

“Cambodia stands at a crossroads — what we do in the coming days and weeks will dictate our future. The country must work as one, towards a common goal — together we can control the outbreak,” Li said. “If we don’t, I fear the consequences will be catastrophic.”

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