Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Cambodia’s first lockdown sees challenges as number of infections keeps rising

Residents walk past a barrier placed in front of a Phnom Penh road, April 19, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Residents walk past a barrier placed in front of a Phnom Penh road, April 19, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise sharply, Cambodian government has introduced even harsher measures to its lockdown restrictions in Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao City, in Kandal, while the capital’s poorest residents say they are struggling to access enough food to eat.

Rights monitors said that citizens, organizations, businesses, and enforcement authorities themselves were not given sufficient time to prepare ahead of the lockdown. The lockdown began just after midnight April 15, with the directive issued only hours before it was to go into effect.

San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said that the government should have given more notice and put into place measures to support the many Cambodians who are daily wage laborers and live hand to mouth.

“They just earn enough each day to eat, so they are forced to go outside to earn money and because they are also in trouble, with debt owed to the bank or microfinance institution,” he said. “They think that if they stay at home, they will face a family financial crisis, so the government needs to introduce measures to effectively respond to the needs of vulnerable people.”

He said that while the families of those  who have tested positive for COVID-19 and placed in quarantine are the first priority for assistance, people who work in the informal sector should be the second priority.

“We need to have a mechanism to monitor and evaluate the results [of the lockdown] to find out what are the obstacles. We need to have a proper procedure, which has comprehensive recommendations and consultation [in order] to effectively implement [the lockdown]” he added.

Over the weekend, the government issued far harsher guidelines for the lockdown, limiting companies to bringing in just 2 percent of their staff, requiring travel permits, suspending distribution of the first dose of the vaccination, banning outdoor exercise, and removing a work travel exemption for staff of international NGOs.

On Monday, the government termed several communes and villages in Phnom Penh and Takhmao City as “red zones,” which face even stronger restrictions. All businesses are ordered closed in these zones, and the government said it was preparing food assistance for needy residents. The latest directive orders the Ministry of Commerce to supply enough food to people in the red zone by providing door-to-door service.

Phnom Penh City Hall on Sunday also increased the fine for violating the terms of the lockdown from $500 to $1,000.

Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet said that as the measures have grown stricter during the first five days of lockdown, fewer people are appearing on the street. He also said the government had begun providing assistance to the poor.

“More assistance has been provided to vulnerable people. We go to offer them assistance in person, so this reduces the people going outside while we allow food transport into their area as well,” he said.

“We hope that the number of people going outside will be much reduced, but the authorities will keep the restrictions.”

According to Thet, seven people were sent to the court for violating the lockdown measures. He said thus far Cambodians who have been caught violating the travel ban have only been educated and released while six Chinese, travelling from Kampot province were placed in quarantine.

According to the National Police website, six more people were arrested Monday for having a drinking party, in violation of the lockdown.

Four people were arrested in Ratanakiri on April 17 after travelling from Phnom Penh to the province by hiding in an ambulance, they will be sent to court after 14 days in quarantine.

Authorities block Norodom Blvd in Phnom Penh, April 19, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Chak Sopheap, the executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), said the lockdown was implemented too quickly, and without giving enough time for people to plan accordingly, leading citizens to be accused of violating the measures. Rumors of the lockdown began shortly before the official announcement, causing dangerous overcrowding at markets and grocery stores.

“The government must ensure that all citizens can access and understand the relevant information in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and the recently passed lockdown measures,” she said, adding that humanitarian support must be quickly provided to those who have been severely affected by the economic ramifications.

“All human rights, including the rights to access adequate food, must inform and guide the government’s response to the pandemic if it wants to achieve better outcomes in beating COVID-19, all while preserving human dignity,” she said.

Cambodia recorded at least 624 new cases of infection on Monday alone. The country has thus far recorded 7,013 cases and 45 deaths, placing it at number seven and number six respectively in ASEAN.

Heng Sereyvisal, a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh said that the only support he has been given is five kilogram of rice and a case of canned fish from a private charity.

“I heard that the government allocates 10 tons of rice per district to give people and I asked the authority for some, but they said the aid is only for people who have proof of residency and for me I sleep in my tuk-tuk, parking it along the street in front of a hotel or apartment,” he said. 

Sereyvisal who is from Takeo province said he borrowed $3,000 from the bank to buy his vehicle, paying back about $150 a month. With the lockdown, he has virtually no customers.

“Now I am not only facing a lack of daily food, but a serious issue is also my debt to the bank — they do not provide any exemption even though we cannot make money,” he said. “They call and ask me to find money to pay back, but how can I find the money as the city is locked down?”