Early Thursday morning, Phnom Penh and Takhmao city residents began their first day under a two-week lockdown intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The night before, a sudden anxiety had gripped the metropolitan area after an apparently leaked audio message from Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a sweeping lockdown with little additional information. Residents packed markets and other stores to stock up on food and essential items, prompting concern on social media for the apparent lack of social distancing.
The prime minister later posted an official announcement to his Facebook page, providing more detail while attempting to reassure listeners panicked by the earlier, unofficial notice.
“The purpose of this lockdown is to combat the outbreak. This lockdown won’t make people die,” the prime minister said in the recording. “Even though it has some impact, we are preparing in order to bring our people to a normal livelihood.”
The move is just the latest step in a series of tightening restrictions since February 20, the date recognized as the start of the country’s current outbreak. Though Cambodia had been mostly untouched by COVID-19 in the year since the pandemic gripped the world, in the past week alone health officials in the capital Phnom Penh recorded 2,000 new cases. With insufficient capacity in hospitals and medical clinics, authorities have turned to public school buildings and a large hall in the upscale neighborhood of Koh Pich to serve as treatment centers.
In yesterday’s audio message, Hun Sen said he’d received a report of more than 300 new COVID-19 diagnoses. The high case count had strongly concerned the prime minister and prompted the lockdown, he said.
“I request all of you, please be patient,” the prime minister said. “To face a short suffering is better than a long suffering.”
Residents are now, for the most part, prohibited from going outside their homes if unnecessary. The current lockdown order has also driven the shutdown of nonessential business in Phnom Penh and closely linked suburb Takhmao in Kandal province.
Police are now deployed throughout the city at barricades to prevent people from travelling between the city’s districts. However, residents are permitted to leave their homes to buy food three times a week from shops, provided they bring along ID cards.
Some other travel is still permitted, especially for certain classes of workers who have recognized work certificates. These include foreign diplomats and embassy staff, as well as those employed with UN agencies and other international organizations. Journalists are allowed to travel for work, with the correct documentation.
Truckers hauling food and other necessary items from neighboring Kandal province are still allowed access to Phnom Penh. Travel is permitted for essential workers including those in health and pharmacy services, food production, banking and telecommunications. Staff at hotels and guesthouses, gas stations, marts, restaurants and delivery services may also travel for work, though authorities have asked these service providers to reduce their activities to a minimum.
Travel for any other urgent issues is permitted with approval from local authorities, and those suffering health emergencies may seek treatment as usual.
However, one notable exception is for workers at garment, textile and footwear factories, which have been officially closed through the lockdown order. Almost one week ago, more than 600 workers of the Din Han Enterprise factory in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey 3 commune tested positive for COVID-19, putting factories under greater health scrutiny.
That wave of new cases, along with those from other viral hotspots at popular city markets including O’Russei and Phsar Chas prompted new and stricter measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, including an overnight curfew and localized lockdowns.
On April 10, Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng ordered a complete lockdown for two weeks of various places with high exposure to the virus, including the communes of Stung Meanchey 1 and Stung Meanchey 2, both of the Meanchey district in the city’s southwest. Authorities also locked down seven villages in Pur Senchey district, as well as one village in Sen Sok district.
By April 12, officials at City Hall decided to lock down three more villages in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey 3 commune – Trea 4, Damnak Thom 2 and Damnak Thom 3.
To oversee the citywide lockdown, the government has established a National Committee to Manage and Lead the Implementation of the Lockdown Measure chaired by Aun Pornmoniroth, the minister of Economy and Finance.
Earlier this year, Pornmoniroth was mentioned as a possible successor of Hun Sen at some future point. Now, and for at least the next two weeks, he’ll report to the prime minister on the lockdown’s effectiveness. The lockdown committee is tasked with monitoring the public well-being and supporting poor and vulnerable families.
A Thursday afternoon statement from the Ministry of Health announced 339 new cases related to the February 20 outbreak. Of those, 243 cases were recorded in Phnom Penh, which has now seen 1,875 new cases diagnosed within a week. Health officials have recorded 4,676 new community infections in the current outbreak with a total overall case count of 5,218 cases.
As of now, 36 people in Cambodia have died of COVID-19.
Thursday night’s leaked audio announcement of the lockdown was widely shared on social media, sparking a worried round of stockpiling at local markets and stores. Hun Sen apologized for the uproar and said food access will not be jeopardized during the lockdown.
Supermarkets and other stores selling food and essential items have been encouraged to limit the number of customers shopping at any one time.
Last week, the prime minister announced plans to provide food and some financial support for families that had been subject to the earlier, local lockdowns.
When asked if the government will now implement this measure for all people in Phnom Penh and Takhmao, Meas Soksensan, spokesperson at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said the ministry will use an allocated budget of $800 million to address the impact of COVID-19.
In yesterday’s official lockdown announcement, Hun Sen urged city officials to prepare aid for vulnerable people.
“Governor Khuong Sreng needs to pay attention to check and monitor the situation of people who live in poor areas in the capital by providing them agent relief assistance in place,” he said.
Hun Sen also called on traders not to increase prices during this time of need, adding that the government will release rice stock to supply the market and keep prices low.
Penn Sovicheat, the undersecretary of state and spokesperson at the Ministry of Commerce (MOC), said the state-owned rice exporter Green Trade is preparing to release rice into the market. He did not mention how many tons of rice will be issued but said rice will be distributed through wholesalers and stores set up by Green Trade.
“We have enough rice in stock and we are working with relevant parties,” Sovicheat said. “We do not set the exact date to release but after the job is done will release it. We are only waiting for direction from the minister.”
Moeun Tola, executive director at labor rights group CENTRAL pointed out that authorities have not announced new restrictions with warning time to allow residents to prepare. In the case of the lockdown, the new measure was announced at night, shortly before the start of curfew, and was implemented early in the morning.
“We demand the state take appropriate measures before they decide to lockdown. They should have some measure to inform the people, not surprise them,” Tola said, adding that the evening rush on crowded markets, a potentially hazardous condition for the spread of the virus, showed the announcement was counterproductive.
“The yesterday event told us that all the people who have low, middle and high income, confirmed that those people are very worried about their stomachs (eating) rather than their health.”
Tola said the state needs to use appropriate measures to help low-income people. He agreed with the decision to close garment factories for two weeks but said workers should get pay and other benefits.
“The state needs to help the factories and enterprises because they do not have the income to be able to suspend,” Tola said.