Cambodia is facing heat for possibly inflaming the global coronavirus outbreak when a woman tested positive for the virus after the country allowed her and 1,200 passengers to disembark a cruise ship and many of them to fly to other countries.
Locals told CamboJA News that they hoped the government would think more thoroughly before making decisions that risked people’s health.
To fanfare, passengers disembarked from Holland America Line’s Westerdam ship in Sihanoukville on Friday, with Prime Minister Hun Sen embracing the passengers and touting the action as a humanitarian act. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his support.
With more than 2,000 people on board, the ship had been turned away from the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Thailand due to concerns that the coronavirus could be present. Cambodian authorities tested 20 of the passengers before allowing 1,200 people to disembark, travel to Phnom Penh, and either fly to other destinations or tour the capital.
More than 70,000 people have contracted the novel coronavirus and almost 1,800 have died, but the virus had thus far remained largely in China, where it originated.
The U.S. Embassy was among those who enthusiastically supported the decision last week, with ambassador W. Patrick Murphy joining in on greeting the disembarking passengers.
On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy said on its Facebook page that it was aware that one of the passengers, an 83-year-old American, had since tested positive for coronavirus after flying to Malaysia. The embassy downplayed the risk, however.
“Outdoor or large indoor spaces such as the airport departure hall reduce risk because of greater ventilation,” it wrote, saying that close contact for over 15 minutes “determined” risk.
However, the New York Times wrote on Monday that there could be a “global toll” as a result of Hun Sen’s “famously complacent” attitude toward the virus.
“We anticipated glitches, but I have to tell you I didn’t anticipate one of this magnitude,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told the newspaper about the positive test in Malaysia following disembarkation in Cambodia.
“This could be a turning point,” Schaffner said. The virus — previously almost entirely contained in China, with 99 percent of cases confined to the country, according to WHO figures — might now have a path to spread more widely.
Morn Sina, a villager in O’Tres commune in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district, entreated the government to “thoroughly consider” its decisions before putting people’s health at risk.
“We don’t know clearly why the government’s leader allowed this ship to dock in Cambodia even though several other countries banned it,” Sina said.
A resident near Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas market, Sann Sokleap, said she would not be heeding Hun Sen’s earlier advice that fear, not the coronavirus, was the real disease afflicting Cambodia.
“I’ve told my family members as well as my children to wear masks when they go outside,” she said. Hun Sen has threatened to kick out journalists and officials seen wearing face masks at events he has presided over, saying Cambodia should stand by China in a time of difficulty.
A vendor in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, Sok Leang, said many Cambodians were worried about the situation. “Both I and other people in Cambodia are concerned about this virus,” Leang said.