Violators of Covid-19 public health measures should be arrested one day and put on trial the next, Prime Minister Hun Sen said, ordering the creation of a special court to crack down on those who flout travel bans and other orders.
Speaking for three hours on Saturday morning amid a surge in novel coronavirus cases, Hun Sen asked for more help from the military as hospitals run out of room for Covid-19 patients, said laboratories had failed to prioritize high-risk cases for testing, and forecast that the country would be able to obtain only 11 million doses of vaccines this year — about half its ultimate goal of 20 million doses to vaccinate 10 million people.
He added that microfinance institutions should show leniency to Covid-19 patients, requested that the U.S. cancel Cambodia’s historical debt, and said he wouldn’t mind being called a dictator for forcing the population to be vaccinated to protect their health.
The country has seen over 1,000 new Covid-19 cases in the past two days, to reach a total of more than 4,000 cases since the disease first arrived last year.
Hun Sen noted that Cambodia had now surpassed Vietnam in the total number of cases — the neighboring country, with a population of nearly 100 million, has recorded fewer than 3,000 total Covid-19 cases.
Laos was also doing a better job controlling the disease than Cambodia, Hun Sen said, speaking angrily at times over the course of his speech.
“Our doctors can no longer support this. In just two days, over 1,000 cases is over the capacity of Loung Mae Hospital and other hospitals that are full of patients now,” Hun Sen said, referring to a Phnom Penh hospital that had only recently been converted to be used to house Covid-19 patients.
He said the latest outbreak had been caused by “our bad governance,” pointing to people leaving quarantine with the help of hotel guards, and KTVs and entertainment venues operating “without authorities knowing.”
The current “February 20” cluster includes Chinese women who left quarantine at the Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh and has been linked to a nightclub in the capital.
Hun Sen ordered that capital and provincial authorities tighten their enforcement of the law and health measures such as wearing masks and social distancing — which he pointed out were now mandatory in Phnom Penh.
Some people were violating the countrywide inter-provincial travel ban by hiding in goods trucks, and they should be punished without exception, he said.
“We must punish them for breaching the rules. It is not a joke,” he said.
Hun Sen ordered Justice Minister Keut Rith to set up a special court to prosecute violators. Judges and court officials can wear protective health gear so trials can go on without exception, he said.
“Amid Covid, we’ve reduced the number of people working in the institutions, but for trials against those who have breached Covid-19 [measures], those cases must be done. This is a must,” Hun Sen said. “Arrest tonight, trial tomorrow. I am not ordering the judges, but I am ordering the minister of justice.”
“Do not let them say that our law was created just to make a threat,” Hun Sen added.
Hun Sen also criticized testing procedures, saying high-risk cases had not been tested first as he had ordered.
“Our strategy was to find quickly and control quickly. [But] at the laboratory, [samples from] risky sites have been left to be done later, while low-risk [cases] were being done first,” he said. “Recently the laboratory was not implementing the government strategy but did it in its order.”
The prime minister meanwhile asked that microfinance institutions and banks waive interest and penalties for Covid-19 patients, and said debtors’ property should not be confiscated at this time. He also asked that U.S. President Joe Biden consider canceling Cambodia’s Lon Nol-era debt, a longstanding issue between the two countries.
The government would prepare for a continued increase in cases, setting up treatment centers in two high schools in Phnom Penh and the Koh Pich Convention Center, which should be able to house 5,000 beds, he said.
“Governor Khuong Sreng, please release more military resources to help with this,” he said in reference to the Phnom Penh governor. Other provinces should also prepare more space for Covid-19 patients, he said.
“The last point I want to talk about is the problem of vaccinations,” Hun Sen said.
Almost 1 million people in Cambodia had now been vaccinated, which was not low considering the country’s 15 million population, Hun Sen said. But the country would not be hitting its vaccination target by the end of the year.
“We are going to receive, as planned, 20 million doses of vaccines, but 11 million doses will arrive this year,” Hun Sen said.
He shrugged off criticism over his proposal that people could be required to vaccinate, saying that vaccinating was needed across the world.
“I don’t mind being known as a dictator,” he said. “My idea is to protect the lives of the people.”