Opinion: To Avoid Covid-19’s Worst, Cambodia Needs a Healthy Dose of Fear

NagaWorld workers wait to be tested on March 12, 2021. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)
NagaWorld workers wait to be tested on March 12, 2021. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

About a month ago, despite a few missteps and jumps in infections, Cambodia’s Covid-19 prevention and response efforts were seen as a relative success story. Total reported cases were still below 500, most new patients were people entering the country from abroad and the nation had reported no official deaths from Covid-19.

But since February 20, Cambodia’s coronavirus situation has drastically changed. People living in Cambodia no longer exist in an exceptional bubble where life is still as it was in 2019.

What Cambodia is experiencing now feels like the start of what many of my friends and family living in the U.S. experienced much earlier last year: a skyrocketing number of infections, a growing number of deaths, the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants, and the opportunity to sacrifice individually in order to do what is necessary to keep more of us safe and healthy.

In the last five weeks in Cambodia, we have been failing to flatten the curve. While we can throw stones and blame a handful of people’s misdeeds that happened around February 8, and are believed to have triggered the current “February 20” outbreak, that will not stop the current rise in infections.

So instead of looking back to February with scorn, I’d like to discuss what happened on Thursday, March 25.

Two men died of Covid-19, both within two weeks of testing positive. Both were also under the age of 44. One was Cambodian and one Chinese.

The Health Ministry said in a statement that the disease severely damaged their lungs. Both were put on a ventilator in an attempt to save their lives. They died in the same Phnom Penh hospital. One was 38. The other, 43.

So if you think only elderly people die of Covid-19, just because statistically many more seniors have died, you’d be wrong. Plenty of young people have died from Covid-19 around the world, and Cambodia sadly won’t be an exception.

In addition, if you believe that Covid-19 is only circulating among Chinese expats in Cambodia, not only are you discriminating, but you are ignoring the truth. The majority of the people who have tested positive in the country, before and after February 20, have been the majority population, Cambodians.

As a Cambodian comedian told VOD on Thursday, the same day his 38-year-old colleague died of Covid-19, “This is not a joke.”

On Thursday, the Health Ministry reported 55 new locally transmitted cases of Covid-19, including 50 in Phnom Penh, with active cases nationwide surpassing 800 for the first time ever. The country has recorded more than 1,800 infections, over 1,000 recoveries and nine deaths of Covid-19 patients, seven attributed to the disease, since January 2020.

Also on Thursday, someone I know, who I’ll call Jamie, which is not their real name, recalled to me a troubling firsthand experience. While I don’t think it’s emblematic of the behaviors of most people in Cambodia, given the current context and timing, Jamie’s account was seriously concerning.

While walking in Boeng Keng Kang III commune on Thursday morning, Jamie, who was wearing a mask, passed a group of four young, mask-less men leaning up against a car.

Jamie didn’t really notice them or make eye contact until one of them faked a cough in Jamie’s direction just as Jamie walked by.

The group thought the behavior was hilarious, as evidenced by their childish giggling while Jamie turned and glared at them. One of the four was grinning, Jamie recalled soon after the incident happened.

Covid-19 has been a lot of things since early 2020. A tragedy, a drama, a thriller, but not much of a comedy, not a good one anyway. While many have found ways to laugh at the difficult situation the pandemic has put us all in, there’s nothing funny about potentially exposing someone to a possibly fatal disease.

As a Cambodian comedian told VOD on Thursday, the same day his 38-year-old colleague died of Covid-19, “This is not a joke.”

Jamie was understandably disturbed by the interaction, as it potentially exposed them to the virus. But we should all be a bit disturbed these days, especially the four young men who apparently think Covid-19 is a joke.

What they need — people who are their likely age, and others not taking the pandemic seriously — is a healthy dose of fear.

Most infections in the country have been found within the 20-29 age group, about 40 percent of cases, followed by the 30-39 age group, according to a March 15 report from the World Health Organization and Health Ministry.

An earlier report from this month says the WHO has tendered a “risk communication campaign targeting youth” on behalf of the Health Ministry. “It is aimed at encouraging the protective behaviours amongst youth and engaging them as agents of change with their communities,” the report says. I hope the change comes soon.

As Covid-19 infections spike and deaths begin to accumulate in Cambodia, a healthy dose of fear of the coronavirus, and rational responses to that fear, may help the country avoid the worst of what the global pandemic has to offer.

We should not panic, but we need just the right amount of fear, to recognize the danger and then act to mitigate it.

The Health Ministry and the WHO warned as much last week, when they disclosed, just a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told VOD, that active cases in the country were most likely the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant that was first identified in the U.K.

Vaccines are ultimately a public health Band-Aid that help us diminish the symptoms and the death toll, but they are not enough to stop the spread of the virus, right now or even a month from now, based on the current rate of vaccinations.

Their statement added that movement restrictions between provinces or within cities are possible, and “[l]argescale transmission could require largescale restrictions and lockdowns.”

“[I]t would highly likely cause hospitals and health facilities to become overwhelmed,” it said.

Hospitals and quarantine centers are already filling up, and while the government and partners work to create alternative quarantine and health facilities, the public can buy the health system time by taking actions that limit the burdens piled onto it.

So let’s get to work. But ideally at home.

Ask yourself what you and your family, friends and co-workers can do to help turn this bad situation around.

Can you wear a mask whenever you need to go out? Of course.

Can you order food and groceries to be delivered? Do it.

Can you tell your friends and family, sorry, but no, when they ask you to get a coffee, meet at a restaurant for a meal or visit during Khmer New Year next month? Yes, you can.

Assuming you’re not an essential or frontline worker, now is the time to make a pod with a few family members or friends, and talk to everyone else you know over the phone, video chat or voice messages.

We in Cambodia are capable of making the same sacrifices that much of the world made for months on end last year. In fact, we must if we are to avoid the worst-case scenarios here, including an overwhelmed health care system that could struggle to treat patients for Covid-19 and other ailments, further economic downturn in the long run and a rising death toll.

As the Health Ministry and the WHO have said, it’s really up to all of us.

Will you make the social sacrifices, and even challenge your friends and family when they are wearing their mask incorrectly (it must be covering your mouth AND your nose!), when they tell you they are making unnecessary plans to go out and gather in groups, and when they make choices that risk not just their lives, but many others in the country?

As the vaccination rollout continues, we must remember also that vaccines are not a panacea for this pandemic. They may not stop a vaccine recipient from carrying and spreading the virus to others, and in a very few cases vaccines have not even stopped people from testing positive.

Vaccines are ultimately a public health Band-Aid that help us diminish the symptoms and the death toll, but they are not enough to stop the spread of the virus, right now or even a month from now, based on the current rate of vaccinations.

People living in Cambodia, all of us, and our smart, safe choices, are the only way we will overcome this current outbreak, flatten the curve in cases and eventually adapt to this new normal.

If you have not realized by now, at this moment, I’m afraid. Not very afraid. But concerned, worried, and reasonably and rationally fearful. I hope you are as well.

Fear can be a powerful motivator, so let’s be a little more fearful — or perhaps proactively precautious — now, so we don’t have to be very afraid in the days to come.

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