Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Military to run red zone vaccination campaign starting next week

A metal blockade on a red zone street in Phnom Penh, April 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A metal blockade on a red zone street in Phnom Penh, April 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The government on May 1 will start a COVID-19 vaccination campaign for those living in red zones, subjected to the highest level of lockdown restrictions due to high rates of infection. Local authorities, meanwhile, have been strengthening barricades around red zones, drawing concern from those living inside.

Ith Sarath, Deputy Commander-in-Chief and Joint Chief of Staff of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) was appointed to facilitate the vaccination campaign for citizens in the red zones.

“Vaccination campaigns for citizens in red zones will start on May 1 until May 30,” Sarath said by phone Thursday.

The campaign will be led by the Defense Ministry and with assistance from the Health Ministry, Labor Ministry and Phnom Penh authority, Sarath added, though declined to go into more detail.

Or Vandine, Health Ministry’s spokeswoman, said 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine arrived Wednesday night and had been set aside for inoculations in red zones.

“The Phnom Penh administration and I have discussed [this issue] and decided to set four districts for the doctors of the Defense Ministry to help with the vaccination campaign, including Kambol, Pur Senchey, Meanchey, and Dangkor districts,” she said.

She said that when the next vaccine shipment arrives, more areas will be added to the campaign.

“We are preparing a large-scale vaccination campaign for other districts beside these four,” she said. 

Heng Sour, Labor Ministry’s spokesman, said on Wednesday at a press conference at the Justice Ministry that the ministry was looking to restart vaccinations in the red zones, which include many of Phnom Penh’s factory-dense areas.

“The ministry is completely prepared to cooperate with relevant parties especially with the Defense Ministry to facilitate vaccination at large scale in red zones that have workers and citizens,” Sour said.

On Thursday, local authorities began strengthening barricades keeping people inside or outside of the red zones, replacing metal fences on some streets with concrete barriers.

San Sok Seiha, spokesman of Phnom Penh Police, said the stronger closures would reduce the number of officers needed on the streets, saying they had been guarding them day and night and needed a break.

He added that the increased COVID-19 testing for those living in the red zones, coupled with the vaccination campaign and barriers would hopefully mean the lockdown can soon end. While Phnom Penh’s lockdown began April 15, some red zone areas have been under lockdown since April 10 after infections spread among factory workers. The citywide lockdown was extended most recently to May 5. 

“We do all things because we want that area to ease again,” Sok Seiha said,  adding that as soon as infection rates drop they will be changed to dark yellow or yellow zones, “so please citizens, face difficulty for a short time rather than a long time.”

Authorities inspect a tape barrier on a red zone street in Phnom Penh, April 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

At around 10:30 AM on Thursday morning, about ten authorities including military police and village security guards could be seen withdrawing metal barricades blocking a street at the border of Chaom Chao I commune, a red zone, and replacing them with a cement pipe and some long cement pillars.

Bun Vibol, a military police officer guarding a street near a military airbase at the borderline of Choam Chao 1 commune, said that they changed it because they want to reduce the number of forces needed to guard there.

“We put it like this because we do not want citizens to go out and in through this street a lot,” Vibol said. “We do something to follow our high level.”

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), commended the government’s vaccination campaign for citizens in red zones.

“I support extending the universal access of vaccination for citizens in the red zones, but I request that [the government] should arrange it clearly to make it easy for citizens to keep social distancing,”  said Sopheap. Last Saturday, chaos ensued after the government ordered everyone living in red zones to get COVID-19 tests, or face fines. Whole neighborhoods crowded dangerously at testing sites, leading the government to revise its order, narrowing who needed to be tested.

Sopheap also raised questions about the replacing of barricades, noting that heavy cement blockades could cause problems in an emergency.

“Suppose there is a fire or the people need to go out for an emergency health reason. Can the authorities help them on time or not, if they blocked the road in villages like this? The authorities should reconsider this point,” she said.  

She added that many people in red zones continue to suffer food shortages, as they have completely lost their income, and urged the government to speed up and extend food or financial assistance.

The 400,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine that arrived Wednesday night were donated by China, marking the third such donation the Kingdom has received from the Chinese government, Ministry of Health’s secretary of state York Sambath told reporters at the Phnom Penh International Airport.

Cambodia has so far procured a total of 3.7 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines from China, through both donation and purchase – 1.7 million doses of Sinopharm and two million doses of Sinovac.

Sambath said that another one million doses of the Sinovac vaccine will arrive in Cambodia on May 10.

The Ministry of Health on Thursday said it recorded 880 new cases and that 91 people have died of COVID-19 — all from the latest outbreak. Health officials have recorded 12,090 new infections since the February 20 community event, with a total overall case count of 12,641 cases since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.