Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Fears of new Delta COVID-19 variant as hundreds of migrant workers return to Cambodia

A military truck carrying returning migrant workers from Thailand to a quarantine center in Banteay Meanchey province on June 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Vann Vichar
A military truck carrying returning migrant workers from Thailand to a quarantine center in Banteay Meanchey province on June 10, 2021. CamboJA/ Vann Vichar

As the number of new COVID-19 infections rises quickly through the first week of July, officials continue to find cases of the more-infectious Delta variant.

The new strain of the virus is believed to have first entered the country in early June with migrant workers returning from Thailand. Though the Ministry of Health has only reportedly found the virus at the border so far, the uptick of other COVID-19 variants across the country has continued at a fast pace.

Pointing to thousands of new infections, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine urged caution among the public.

“At present, COVID-19 is spreading seriously,” Vandine said, adding that Cambodia is “on the red line” of the outbreak. She told CamboJA the country can still pull back if people follow all measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

According to the Health Ministry, on each day since July 1, officials have recorded nearly 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 nationwide. On Tuesday alone, the ministry detected 935 new infections and 31 deaths. This has raised the total number of cases to 56,122, which includes 3,495 imported cases. So far, a recorded 779 people have died of COVID-19 in Cambodia.

Vandine said Prime Minister Hun Sen has frequently advised provincial officials overseeing testing, quarantine and treatment centers along Thailand’s border, where returning workers are being screened by the hundreds.

In Oddar Meanchey, spokesman Dy Rado told CamboJA the border province currently has a total of 1,008 recorded COVID-19 infections, with 177 recoveries. Rado said 895 returning migrant workers have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the ongoing February 20 outbreak. The remaining 113 cases are believed to be community infections.

Rado said only three migrant workers in the province have so far tested positive for the Delta variant. The recently discovered strain of the novel coronavirus is believed to be much more infectious than other variants, reportedly as much as 15 times more.

“Since last week, all migrant workers who return to Cambodia must be tested and quarantined in the provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border,” Rado said.

He said that from the start of the December COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand, about 200 migrant workers had been returning weekly into the provinces along the border. However, since just last week, that inflow grew to a total of as many as 500 returnees per week.

Provincial health authorities will open public vaccinations on July 8, Rado said, after previously vaccinating civil servants and members of the armed forces. The vaccination campaign will begin in Samroang town before moving to the districts of Trapaing Prasat, Anlong Veng, Banteay Ampil and Chong Kal districts.

Srey Naren, the Oddar Meanchey provincial coordinator of human rights group Adhoc, said the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand — including the Delta variant — has closed opportunities for Cambodian migrants to work.

“They returned to Cambodia because they do not have work and they do not have money to buy food to eat,” Naren said.

He said migrant workers are tested for COVID-19 by authorities on both sides of the border. Those who test positive are sent for treatment and quarantines organized by provincial authorities, while those who test negative are sent to a 14-day quarantine.

Naren urged provincial authorities to advise the rural public about health measures. He also requested the government supply food for poor citizens who are in restricted areas.

Other border provinces are also working to contain new infections from the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the Banteay Meanchey provincial administration announced that 106 new cases had been detected by rapid test. The day before, authorities announced just one fewer case.

Multiple Banteay Meanchey provincial officials and health administrators either did not comment or could not be reached. However, Sek Sokhom, director of the provincial Department of Information, told CamboJA the province’s border checkpoint at Poipet is fielding as many as 200 returnees each day.

Sokhom did not know the number of migrant workers who have been found to be infected with COVID-19 but said all returnees are screened before crossing the border.

Still, he said “one or two new [Delta strain] cases have not been identified yet” and need further testing for confirmation after an initial test.

Banteay Meanchey provincial authorities began their vaccination campaign in early July, Sokhom added, and have recorded a total of 35 deaths.

Soum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for local human right group Adhoc, told CamboJA that local restrictions on gathering exist only on paper, without effective implementation and control.

“We saw the report of the provincial hall come out yesterday sho an increase of 105 people, so most of the people who were infected are not [returning] workers,” he said, describing the rise in community infections.

Moeun Tola, executive director of rights group CENTRAL, told CamboJA that returning Cambodian migrants are leaving a difficult situation in their former host country.

“There are more than 2 million Cambodian workers, most of them working in agriculture and construction and others for other sectors,” Tola said of those across the border. “Most of them are undocumented, which means they are illegal workers.

He explained that in Thailand, lockdowns on construction sites and elsewhere can bring the attention of authorities on employers who illegally hire migrant workers. These employers may be fined, but the workers themselves may face imprisonment.

“Samroang market in Oddar Menachey’s Samroang city was closed since June 5 until now because some vendors were tested positive of COVID-19,”  Naren said that Saong city police chief and some civil servants and as well as military officials were tested positive of COVID-19 last month.

Other provinces are also finding new COVID-19 cases, including among returning migrant workers. The Battambang provincial administration announced on Monday two new COVID-19 deaths and 50 new cases, including six among returning migrant workers. On Sunday, authorities had found 57 cases, 26 of which

Battambang provincial officials and health administrators either did not comment or could not be reached.

Dr. Vandine said Health Ministry and provincial health departments broadcasted and disseminated around the country about protection and prevention measure and instructions for COVID-19 but some people still do not follow and they held the party and drink.

“Please all people be careful COVID-19 and especially the new Delta virus that converted from COVID because it can infect faster and please do not forget to follow health measures and instructions,” she said.

She said now, COVID-19 is spreading at the people’s home, so please the people who have full energy do not bring COVID-19 disease go into their homes when they outside their homes.

“Now, we lack of participating from the people……because the number of people who go outside and gathering to drink [wine or beer] still have more,”  Vandine said.

He said adding that he appeals to all people respect Health Ministry’s measures and instructions, even some people vaccinated already.

Hok Kimcheng, general director of General Department of Technical and Health at Health Ministry said a little bit said that now COVID-19 disease occurred in the towns and any places where are crowded people who gathering in provinces and he declined to elaborate more detail and he referred the question to Or Vandine, spokesman of Health Ministry.

Voeung Sareth, director of Battambang provincial health department declined to comment and he referred the question to the provincial administration.

Nguon Ratanak, Battambang provincial governor could not be reached for comment on Tuesday while Soeum Bunrith, the provincial spokesman could not be reached for comment.

ADHOC: He added that the government’s measures were well documented and the recent proliferation practice had a lot of restrictions but some officials still go to beer garden or restaurant to sing and dance and they contacted with some women who served in the beer garden or restaurant, so it spreads to another people in Banteay Meanchey province.

 the situation of migrant workers at the border has increased due to the explosion in Thailand, so Thailand closed construction sites in Bangkok and some provinces, it’s very difficult for Cambodian workers.

Le Chansangvat, Banteay Meanchey Provincial Health Department, declined to comment and he said he is busy with meeting. Um Reatrey, Banteay Meanchey Provincial Governor could not be reached for comment.

that normally, workers who return from Thailand are required to be given a transcript, whether with or without COVID-19, to be transgender for 14 days at the Center in Banteay Meanchey Province.