More than 40 taxi drivers and over a hundred passengers, most of them garment workers, have been detained while trying to leave restricted red zones since May 6, Choam Chao 1 commune police chief Say Chamroeun said on Monday. They are now quarantined for 14 days at Kork Banhchoan Primary School in Pur Senchey district.
Sim Chet Oudom, 29, a worker at Din Han factory who lives in Kork Chambok village in Pur Senchey district’s Choam Chao 1 commune, said that he knew of many garment workers who had tried to leave Phnom Penh as a result of the harsh conditions in the red zones.
“The reason that they went home was because they did not have enough food to eat,” he said. “In particular they don’t have money to buy meat, fish and vegetables, or money to pay rent, electricity and water.” Mr Oudom added that he himself did not have enough money to pay the rent for his room, or his utilities.
“In my area, we walked to find shells and cut morning glory near our rental rooms to cook for eating,” said Mr Chet Oudom. “Now the morning glory can’t grow fast enough for us, and we don’t have money to buy other vegetables.”
The garment worker added that they had received a one-time food package from the government, but that it had not been enough to last the month, forcing some people to leave red zones.
He added that he could not go anywhere because his wife had just recovered from COVID-19 on May 4, and she was required to quarantine for 14 days. Other workers, he said, had taken their chances.
“I think that it is a high risk for them, but they are concerned about hunger rather than COVID-19 infection,” said Mr Chet Oudom.
Mr Chamroeun, the commune police chief, said that he did not believe the workers had been trying to leave as a result of food shortages, saying that the government and humanitarian organisations have both been distributing aid in red zones.
“They told us that they wanted to go outside because they were in the lockdown, and they were doing nothing,” he said. “Otherwise, they just stay in their rooms, so they want to go home.”
Many of the workers were detained while attempting to meet up with drivers in front of Canadia Industrial Park along Veng Sreng Boulevard, Mr Chamroeun said. When questioned, a number of drivers said they had been planning to take their passengers to Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom and Prey Veng provinces.
“All the workers who were preparing to ride in vans were sent back to their rooms,” he said. “Passengers who were already riding in vans were sent to quarantine.”
Sar Thet, Phnom Penh police chief confirmed that more than 40 vans had been seized and the drivers and passengers sent to quarantine. He urged people in red zones to remain where they were, saying that the government was arranging food aid and vaccination programmes for them.
“For taxi drivers, do not think only of your own benefits — if we transport [people from red zones], we will have the highest risk,” he said. “Please understand, because we cannot think only of our personal benefits, or it will impact the benefits of all of society.”
Mr Thet said that those who had been detained would only be warned and educated, adding that all their vehicles would be returned after they had undergone their two-week quarantine.
“Our forces are very tired, so please value them and give them respect, and please be patient for a little bit to finish this problem,” said Mr Thet.
Some workers, it seems, managed to slip through. Kampong Thom provincial governor Sok Lou said that there had been some cases of people who came from red zones in Phnom Penh arriving at their homes in Kampong Thom province. Local authorities had ordered them to quarantine for 14 days at the quarantine center.
“There are many cases, but I do not remember all of them because they arrived at different districts in the province,” Mr Lou said, adding that many provinces were dealing with this same issue.
“When they come out from the red zones there is a high risk of infection, so we must be careful,” he said.
Mr Lou said that local authorities had strengthened their restrictions, stressing that anyone suspected of coming from a high-risk zone or having contracted COVID-19 would be tested immediately and sent to quarantine. He appealed to all people in red and dark yellow zones to remain where they were in order to give authorities time to evaluate the situation.
“Please all people who arrived in their homeland, please be honest to report about your health to the authorities, and be careful,” he said. “Because then in case we find a positive case of COVID-19, we can help them and their families on time.”
Yong Kim Eng, president of the non-governmental People’s Centre for Development and Peace, said the government could help prevent people from trying to leave red zones by ensuring that their needs were met.
“I think that if they do not want any people to leave the red zones, the authorities have to guarantee that they have enough food,” he said.
Mr Kim Eng gave the example of the government’s announcement of a three-month suspension on water bill payments, saying that the government should also not charge people for their electricity use while they were unable to work or pay the bills.
Pur Senchey district police chief Morn Vuthy declined to comment, referring questions to district governor Hem Darith. Mr Darith could also not be reached. A request for comment to Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey likewise went unanswered.