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Pchum Ben festival canceled amid concerns of COVID-19 spread

Health officers and authorities speak with a monk at a pagoda to discuss rapid COVID-19 testing, on the third day of Pchum Ben in Phnom Penh, September 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Health officers and authorities speak with a monk at a pagoda to discuss rapid COVID-19 testing, on the third day of Pchum Ben in Phnom Penh, September 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The government announced Thursday it was canceling the 15-day-Pchum Ben festival, which began Wednesday, fearing a spike in COVID-19 cases after cases were traced to pagodas where people had begun gathering for the festival.

The government’s decision issued midnight Thursday was made after more than 50 new cases of COVID-19 were found in just two days in Phnom Penh. However, the government has said the cancelation won’t impact the 3-day Pchum Ben public holiday upcoming early in October.

In an audio message released Thursday, Hun Sen called for more caution, saying new outbreaks would impact the fight against the pandemic

“If we continue to allow [people gathering], I don’t think even with how much we are vaccinated, we can avoid [outbreaks], I’m really worried,” he said.  “It is serious, because this disease may increase during the Pchum Ben day, so we have to control it. I am really worried that after the festival, the number of infections and deaths may increase, which poses a serious risk for the country.”

“The spread will be not only in cities and towns, but also in rural areas, which could destroy the plan to reopen schools. I hope after Pchum Ben there is no spread of COVID-19,” he added.

In just two days of the festival, 52 new cases of COVID-19 were found in Champous Ka Ek pagoda and Neak Voan pagoda in Phnom Penh.

Pagodas across Phnom Penh were closed to the public on Friday morning as heath staff conducted the rapid tests in some pagodas, according to Keut Che, Phnom Penh deputy governor.  

“So, we need to lockdown those pagodas. With the cooperation of doctors, we will do rapid tests for pagodas in Phnom Penh,” he said.

People offers food to monks for third day of Phchum ben festival at a pagoda in Phnom Penh and they are face of testing Covid 19 after the government announced to cancel the festival, September 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

This the second year in a row the country’s biggest religious festival has been canceled due to the pandemic.

The 15-day religious festival is a time when many Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives by bringing food to the pagoda. Cambodian Buddhists believe that during Pchum Ben the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of ancestors are released to receive food from their relatives.

But with the pagoda closures and new safety measures, the festival has become a much more subdued affair.

At the gate of Stung Meanchey pagoda on Friday, two monks stood by the gate to receive food. People lined up 0.5  meters apart before leaving it on a table outside. Before taking it inside, the monks wiped off the containers with alcohol. 

Khen Dara, a 56-year-old Phnom Penh resident brought food to the pagoda.

“I am still concerned about this crisis, but as is the traditional norm, we should go to pagoda normally and need to highly protect ourselves by wearing masks, using alcohol and keeping social distance and listen to the pagoda administration’s guideline,” he said. 

Authorities lock the gate of a pagoda in Phnom Penh to prevent people entering after the government announced it was canceling Pchum Ben to prevent outbreaks, September 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Another visitor, Yeng Phalla, took food to the monks on the second day of the festival before it was cancelled and said it was already quite empty of visitors.

“I am still concerned about this virus, but we should highly protect ourselves as much as possible. Not only my family but others also wore masks and had their temperature taken before entering the pagoda,” he said.

Suy Chivorn, 24, a monk at Botumvatey Pagoda in Phnom Penh, said that during the canceled festival just a few monks are posted at the gate to receive food.

“Monk leaders announced for all monks not to leave unless necessary and not have lunch in a group as usual; we need to take food individually from the canteen and eat in different places,” he said.

Even before the festival was cancelled, he said, only a small number of people had been coming by, and all were following health and safety measures.

In Siem Reap province, which is under lockdown due to high infection rates of COVID-19, all pagodas were already closed

Sun Chamnan, Siem Reap Director of Administration, said that the provincial administration is working hard to lower infection rates.

“People cannot go out if they are in the red zone and yellow zone and the pagoda is still strictly protected themselves as well, we don’t allow people to hold festivals at the pagoda if they are in [a lockdown] zone because it’s a high-risk area,” he said.

He said provincial authorities are working to control the spread of the virus in Siem Reap and called for people to follow the rules, noting they can hold their own personal festival and give food to their parents instead.

On Friday, the Ministry of Health reported 882new cases of COVID-19 and 21 deaths, bringing the total count to 107,441 cases and 2,197 respectively since the pandemic began in early 2020. The ministry has also recorded 99,628 recoveries from the viral disease.

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