Two weeks ago, garment workers at Din Han Enterprise factory went into quarantine after hundreds of workers tested positive for COVID-19. Long Sarem, 42, sealed herself and her son into her small rental room in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey 3 commune, surviving on inexpensive food from a nearby vendor. But just as that quarantine was set to finish, the entire commune was turned into a so-called “red zone” — one among seven Phnom Penh villages and communes that have been put under extremely severe lockdown restrictions. Even food shops have been ordered closed, and Sarem, like many residents, now fear going hungry.
“Every day, I eat leftover rice for breakfast,” she said. “Since April 16, my son and I have eaten only noodles, eggs, and canned fish because I cannot go outside to buy something to eat and, especially, because I do not have enough money to buy good food,” she said.
As Cambodia struggles to contain a fast-moving outbreak of COVID-19, Phnom Penh and neighboring Takmhao City, Kandal, have been under lockdown since April 15, which was strengthened over the weekend. Residents are now mostly banned from going to work or exercise and allowed out for food shopping only on a limited basis. On Monday, Phnom Penh City Hall designated seven areas — Stung Meanchey 1, 2 and 3 communes in Meanchey district; Choam Chao I commune in Pur Senchey district; and villages 14, 16 and 17 in Toul Kork district’s Boeng Salang commune — as red zones. In these areas, all shops are shut and most residents can’t leave their homes except for medical emergencies.
On Tuesday morning, the nearest vendor — who sells groceries, vegetables, fish, and meat on the street — told Sarem she had to leave because the local authorities told her she could not sell anything in a red zone.
“I, along with other people who stay in rental rooms here, will face a lack of food to eat when no people sell food because we can not leave the area to buy food,” Sarem said. Like most garment workers living in the countless small rental rooms that line the streets here, Sarem doesn’t own a refrigerator and said she feared running out of food.
Still Sarem may be one of the luckier residents. On Tuesday afternoon, she received 25 kg bag of rice, noodles, and fish sauce — a package of support from the government, which assigned the Ministry of Commerce to provide food and water to red zone residents.
Others say they have yet to get any food, and rights groups criticized the government for the hastily planned closures that put a large number of Phnom Penh residents at risk of hunger.
Tuk-tuk driver Ly Thea, 42, who lives in a rental room in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey 3 commune said even before the red zone designation he found it difficult to buy food. For the first few days of lockdown he had a friend, who lived in Choam Chao 1 commune buy food for him, his wife, and two sons. But then his friend’s area was designated a red zone as well.
“I ask the authorities to please allow people to sell food and vegetables inside the red zone,” Thea said.
Thea said that he and his family do not have enough money to buy sufficient food to last the length of quarantine, as he relied on his tuk-tuk to earn a daily wage.
“I think that if the authorities do not provide gifts or food, my family will face a lack of food because our food can only last for one week more,” he said.
In a live video posted to Fresh News on Tuesday afternoon, Phnom Penh police carrying rifles and sticks could be seen going door to door in a red zone and shouting at people to stay inside.
Dy Rath Khemrun, deputy Meanchey district governor said that food sellers had been shut down along with all other businesses to halt the spread of COVID-19, and stressed that the government would provide food to needy residents.
“Today, the authorities went down to distribute a gift for 2,000 families in Stung Meanchey 3 commune,” Khemrun said but declined to elaborate on how distribution would work in the coming days and weeks.
Neither Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng nor City Hall spokesman, Met Measpkeakdey, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
The government news website AKP published photos showing about a dozen military trucks being prepared to transport food to distribute for those suffering under the lockdown.
On its Facebook page, Phnom Penh City Hall announced the governor went to distribute supplies including 25 kg of rice, noodles, fish sauce, and soy sauce to each of 1,000 families who live in Damnak Thom 2 and 3 villages in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey III commune.
The page also announced that deputy prime minister Men Sam An led government officials to distribute food for 600 families in villages 14, 16, and 17 in Tuol Kork district’s Boeng Salang commune on Tuesday morning.
During a previous outbreak, the government gave 300,000 riel payments to poor Cambodians who would struggle during a two-week quarantine. And on April 9, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated that offer, saying the government would also cover utility bills for two months. But in an audio recording posted to his Facebook page Tuesday night, Prime Minister Hun Sen said it would be impossible to provide those payments given how many people were now under lockdown.
“Today some people posted on Facebook to protest against [government food] distributors. Please understand and forgive the government which could not offer 300,000 riel to each family or person,” he said.
“We will replace that and support you by providing rice, noodles, canned fish, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Please all of you understand: 300,000 riel is not a big amount for you but it is big for the government to offer the whole city of Phnom Penh.”
He noted that many government staffers are also in lockdown and quarantine, making coordination difficult. But he warned that if villagers complain too much and “cannot compromise” with the authorities over distribution, he will ask them to move the food elsewhere.
“If you don’t understand, we will have no choice. We will contribute to whoever accepts it.”
“I received the report. I’m shocked that some people reject the donation. If you are rejecting the donation, I ask those who distribute it to move away from that area to distribute to people at the other places who need it.”
“I would confirm with all of you that if it is 10,000 or 20,000 families, it is no matter. But now we have millions of families,” he said.
“We donated to more than 10,000 families, and will donate to nearly 10,000 families tomorrow and to more than 20,000 families the day after tomorrow,” he continued
“We will continue to distribute food supplies to survive. I would like to beg forgiveness from anyone who lost 300,000 riel.”
He added that he was asking local authorities not to forget the monks as the lockdown meant they could no longer access alms.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho said that it’s imperative that the government speed up its food distribution.
“The most important thing relates to the process of distributing food as fast as possible for the people who lack food in red zones,” Sam Ath said.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labor rights group Central, said there was little logic in having the Commerce Ministry coordinate food delivery and it would be better to figure out a safe way to allow vendors to continue.
“It is good if the authorities can set time to allow some people to sell food and vegetables….. and they can limit the number of people shopping to keep social distancing,” said Tola.
As of Tuesday, 49 people have died of COVID-19 — all from the latest outbreak. Health officials have recorded 6,899 new infections since the February 20 community event, with a total overall case count of 7,444 cases since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.