Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Government adjusts COVID measures in hopes of full economic reopening

Health workers in Siem Reap province use a COVID-19 rapid test on a market vendor, September 16, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Health workers in Siem Reap province use a COVID-19 rapid test on a market vendor, September 16, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered cities and provincial authorities nationwide to stop conducting mass rapid testing for COVID-19, saying the measure is unnecessary and interrupts the country’s full reopening.

In a leaked audio message released Wednesday night, Hun Sen said rapid testing will only be conducted in targeted places.

“For those who do not have a problem with health, there is no need to do a rapid test. If we continue to do so [mass rapid testing], we will not learn how to live with COVID,” he said. “We are fully vaccinated. We are the number one country in the world for vaccination in the city, so we must move towards opening the country and economic activities.”

According to the prime minister, about two-thirds of recent deaths from COVID-19 were found to be among unvaccinated people. As of Wednesday, more than 13.32 million of Cambodia’s total population of 16 million people have been vaccinated with at least one dose of serum, including children aged 6 years and older.

The prime minister had ordered in July the nationwide use of rapid testing to contain the pandemic. He encouraged the private sector to also conduct rapid tests on their own staff and, since then, some provincial authorities also adopted measures to use rapid testing for people travelling between provinces.

Now with this national policy change comes a tidal shift toward reopening.

On Thursday, Siem Reap authorities lifted red and yellow zone classifications that established lockdowns in areas of high COVID-19 infection rates. The move came at the request of Hun Sen as part of a call to open such zones around the country.

Kampong Speu provincial Governor Vei Samnang said he supports the prime minister’s latest directive on rapid testing.

“In the past, when someone was suspected [of having COVID-19], hundreds of people around or involved were required to take all the tests,” Samnang said. “In a garment factory, we had to do all the tests when someone was suspicious or positive and we lost a lot of money on this test.”

The Ministry of Labor on Tuesday announced that factory employees across the country are required to undergo rapid COVID-19 testing before being allowed back to work after the Pchum Ben holiday.

The ministry also stated that employees who refuse to submit to rapid testing may possibly be expelled from their jobs.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the ministry will issue a new notice if there’s any change to its instructions. However, for now he said the ministry will implement the testing measure based on its previous announcement.

After the announcement from Hun Sen to stop mass rapid testing, the Ministry of Health reported a decline in new COVID-19 cases to just 232 on Friday, bringing the total count to 112,883 cases and 2,336 deaths since the pandemic began in early 2020. The ministry has also recorded 102,827 recoveries from the viral disease.

Vendors prepare their goods for sale in Phnom Penh, October 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Vendors prepare their goods for sale in Phnom Penh, October 1, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Hong Vannak, a business researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said​​ the government cannot declare a full reopening of the country and economic activity when transmission rates remain high. However, he said the end of the rapid-testing is a positive sign, as the continued restriction of economic activity has severely affected informal workers.

“People in the informal sector are suffering, they are currently facing both direct and indirect difficulties, and this will affect the economic system as a whole,” he said. “The return of workers from abroad is an additional burden on the economy and the government faces the issue. The reopening of full economic activity will provide job opportunities for migrant workers as well.”

Vannak said the tourism sector alone has already been affected by the loss of many informal jobs over the past two years, while workers also have to cope with the concerns of indebtedness.

“If austerity measures continue, the vulnerable people will no longer be able to withstand and may face more crisis in society,” he said. “Therefore, the government needs to take urgent and new well-managed measures to respond to the issue.”

Te Taing Por, president of the Federation of Associations for Small and Medium Enterprises of Cambodia, said business activities are starting to recover as many countries reopen their economies.

“Most business activities are still operating, especially food production which continues as usual due to local demand, and retailers continuing to do business online,” he said. “For the SMEs, we do not wait until the economy is fully opened, because we have to produce to supply local demand even if we cannot export.”

However, he said some tourism-related businesses are still struggling, particularly informal operators such as those in transportation.

The World Bank downgraded Cambodia’s forecasted economic growth for 2021 to 2.2 percent from a previous projection of 4 percent and urged the country to strengthen its external competitiveness to accelerate economic recovery and boost job creation.

Chut Sreyneath, a street vendor in Phnom Penh now returning to her hometown in Svay Rieng province, said she gave up her street business for about a month since she could not earn due to COVID-19 conditions.

The 32-year-old widow said that since the Cambodian outbreak began in February, she has had to ask her bank to allow her to delay repayment of a loan.

“I decided to stop selling along the street because I could not earn enough even to cover costs. I need to pay debt,” she said. “The bank approved for me to delay the payment for six months until I find a job. I will go to work in a garment factory because at least then I could have a fixed salary.”