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Reluctant to declare an emergency, Hun Sen calls for stricter enforcement of COVID-19 measures

Phnom Penh motorists were seen wearing face masks on Tuesday after the government reported at least three positive COVID-19 cases linked to a state visit by a Hungarian minister last week. Panha Chhorpoan
Phnom Penh motorists were seen wearing face masks on Tuesday after the government reported at least three positive COVID-19 cases linked to a state visit by a Hungarian minister last week. Panha Chhorpoan

Prime Minister Hun Sen has appealed to all people to follow quarantine, self-isolation and testing requirements, especially officials of his government, after three people who were in contact with an infected foreign dignitary tested positive on Monday.

Hun Sen’s appeal comes after Hungarian Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Peter Szijjarto tested positive, shortly after completing a quick state visit last week. The prime minister asked families of those in direct or indirect contact with the Hungarian minister to quarantine themselves, in an audio recording released by pro-government Fresh News on Monday.

“I appeal again to all officials and the people who had direct contact with Hungarian Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister to quarantine correctly,” Hun Sen, cautioning the spouses of high-ranking officials who he said were not adhering to self-isolation guidelines.

Government statements and Hun Sen’s audio clip have referred to the meeting with the Hungarian minister as the “November 3 event,” because officials are reluctant to constantly associate the minister’s visit with the current outbreak and affect bilateral relations.

Warning of the potential for community transmission, Hun Sen said he was holding off on imposing a state of emergency, adding that it was still possible to contact-trace and quarantine people exposed to the Hungarian minister.

“I could request the King to put Phnom Penh, some regions of Cambodia or the whole country in emergency but I do not want to do this,” he said in the audio clip. “Because there were over 900 people who were in direct or indirect contact with the [Hungarian minister] and this was caused due to our carelessness.”

The contentious “state of emergency” law was hurriedly drafted and passed by the government in April. It has raised concerns for its ability to severely infringe on fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, and for being vaguely worded and with no real checks and balances.

The prime minister said people unable to quarantine will be helped by the government and ordered the military and police forces to monitor the quarantine sites, with local officials asked to keep a check on those self-isolating themselves at home.

“If they do not do this, [we] will use forceful measures and will invite them to quarantine at quarantine sites organized by the Health Ministry and Health Departments in the provinces,” said Hun Sen.

Health monitoring was also being increased in Preah Sihanouk, Kep, Kampot and Takeo where high-ranking officials had attended parties, Hun Sen added. He seemed worried about following Myanmar’s COVID-19 record, where after an initial low case count there had been an exponential increase in cases recently.

Lin Sarin, Ream commune chief in Preah Sihanouk province, said that five villagers in the commune’s Ung village had been placed in quarantine on Monday, after they came in contact with government officials who were at the event with the Hungarian minister.

“Five people have been brought for testing and quarantine in Preah Sihanouk province who had direct contact with them” Sarin said, declining to comment further.

Kheang Phearom, spokesperson for Preah Sihanouk province, said the Phnom Penh-based officials, who were at events with the Hungarian minister, had visited three villages in the commune to collect information regarding a land dispute over a land concession allotted to influential tycoon Ly Yong Phat.

He said a number of villagers had attended the meeting with the delegation of government officials.

“Due to the presence of those [officials] who went to the three villages, we have to manage the people who have been in direct and indirect contact with [them],” he said.

Thou Channary, 34, a villager from Ung village, expressed worry about the presence of the officials, who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, adding that villagers were being cautious in their movements.

“We are now concerned and we dare not gather together. We are just talking by telephone to each other,” Channary said.

She said it would not be unreasonable to quarantine the three villages and restrict people’s movements.

As of Tuesday morning, the Health Ministry said 1,166 people who had been contact-traced had been tested two times since last week. Of these tests, CPP lawmaker Suos Yara, an Agriculture Ministry official and the Hungarian Ambassador to Cambodia and Vietnam tested positive. Twenty-three test results were still awaited, the statement read.

Also, a 31-year-old bodyguard who had tested positive last week, after being assigned to the Hungarian minister’s security detail, was still being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.

Leng Peng Long, the National Assembly’s spokesperson, said on Monday that Suos Yara had met the Hungarian minister at a meeting attended by several officials last week, after which the CPP lawmaker had direct or indirect contact with 20 staffers.

“I went to get tested because I am concerned about this disease,” Peng Long said. “I have quarantined myself at home.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a Facebook post on Monday that he, his wife and bodyguards had also tested negative in the second round of testing.

“I must isolate myself and wait for the third test on 14 November and the fourth test on 18 November,” the premier wrote in the post.

Or Vandine and Yok Sambath, both senior Health Ministry officials, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Sambath told Fresh News that officials will continue to be tested at the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh.

After a majority cases were reported in March and April, the country has seen only a small number of daily cases, mostly from travelers returning to Cambodia.

Last week’s COVID-19 scare is the first serious threat seen by health officials in the country, with the government temporarily shutting down schools in Phnom Penh and Kandal provinces, as well as KTVs, museums and clubs. After being closed since March, schools had only just reopened in November and October.

The Health Ministry on November 9 reported that two Cambodian nationals, who returned home from overseas, had tested positive. Both had flown back to Cambodia from Japan via Seoul, South Korea, on October 26. Both of them tested positive on the 13th day of their quarantine.

Currently, Cambodia has registered a total of 300 cases, with 288 recoveries and 12 active cases.

Unrelated to the Hungarian minister incident, two Cambodian diplomats and two local staff members at the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in France had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement released on Monday.

The ministry said that after consulting with French doctors, the staffers were being prescribed medication and were being treated at their respective homes.

“The Royal Embassy of Cambodia in Paris is waiting for the result of another local staff as it will be released [Monday]. Meanwhile, the Embassy will continue its normal functions online through teleworking,” the statement read.