Cambodia has done relatively well in its battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to leadership, targeted measures, and rapid crisis response.
After a year of battling the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodia is in relatively good shape. The Kingdom reported its first Covid-19 case on 27 January 2020 – a Chinese tourist from Wuhan. The first local case was confirmed on 7 March 2020.
Fast forward a year to 26 January 2021, Cambodia’s Covid-19 totals constituted of 460 infected cases and no deaths. Of these numbers, only 48 patients are still being treated at the hospital. The low infection rate reflects the state capacity of Cambodia. Fighting the pandemic is not a matter of luck but effective leadership and governance.
Due to limited resources, Cambodia has had to rely on strategically targeted measures, including strict quarantine, strategic testing and tracing, and an aggressive public awareness campaign. These measures were introduced relatively early. Since March last year, the government has taken stringent measures on mobility containment, travel restrictions, crowd management, and temporary closures of facilities such as schools, museums and entertainment venues.
The country’s leadership has also played a defining role in the country’s crisis response and management. When the first community transmission occurred in November 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that fighting the war against Covid-19 is more complex than a border war. He added that there is no clear timeframe for concluding the war against the pandemic. He said that the success of the “war” depended on decisive leadership, institutional preparedness, and the people’s participation.
To ensure the highest level of efficiency, a national committee to combat Covid-19 was formed in March 2020 as a joint central command to launch, lead, and implement the Covid-19 response measures. The State of Emergency Law was speedily drafted in March and promulgated in April as a legal measure to pave the way for the government to control the crisis situation. Since the situation is currently under control, there has been no need for the law to be enacted yet.
The emergency law was perceived by some human rights and political activists as a threat to the freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. And the government was alleged to have used the war against the pandemic to crack down on the members of the opposition. The criticisms notwithstanding, the facts on the ground show that the government has done well in curbing the pandemic outbreak by curtailing large-scale community transmission.
Cambodia remains in the middle of the war against the pandemic. The risk of community transmission is high particularly among the Cambodian migrant workers returning from Thailand. Socio-economic recovery remains tenuous.
A whole-of-government approach was promoted in combatting the pandemic on three fronts, namely preventing the recurrence of imported cases into the country, preventing community transmission, and providing treatment to the infected. Moreover, inter-agency coordination and central-local government communication and coordination have been encouraged and enhanced.
Quick investments into the healthcare system mattered. With the support from the World Health Organisation and other development partners, the Ministry of Health updated its pandemic response strategy in March. A phone-based early warning system called EW1294 was activated to promote information sharing as a means to curb the spread of Covid-19. In the early phase of the pandemic outbreak, Cambodia was able to procure critical emergency response supplies. These included 60 ambulances, 370 patient monitors, 110 ventilators, 37 mobile X-ray machines, three polymerase chain reaction machines for testing.
The country’s testing capacity has increased from 500-600 samples per day in early 2020 to more than 3000 samples per day as of December 2020. There is a plan to expand and decentralise laboratory testing capacity for Covid-19 to three provincial laboratories in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang.
The local authorities have also played a critical role in preventing the pandemic outbreak by enforcing quarantine measures, and recently setting up quarantine facilities at the provinces bordering with Thailand after a surge of infections in Thailand in December 2020. From 23 December to 25 January, more than 26,900 samples were collected and tested at the border checkpoints, and 82 individuals were tested positive for Covid-19. Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand are the most vulnerable group.
Crowdfunding efforts have been remarkable. In April 2020, the government raised more than US$23 million within a month to purchase medical supplies in the fight against the pandemic. The money came from local donors, mainly public servants, tycoons, and private citizens. Currently, the government has raised more than US$57 million from local donors to purchase Covid-19 vaccines.
As of January 2021, Cambodia could potentially secure 11 million doses of vaccines – 7 million doses to be procured under the COVAX mechanism, 3 million doses to be provided by Australia and 1 million doses to be donated by China’s Sinopharm (the latter’s vaccines are expected to arrive in February). The government plans to secure 20 million doses of various vaccines.
China is the first donor of vaccines to Cambodia. Since March 2020, China has provided critical material and technical support to the Kingdom. Along with this, China’s image and influence has increased.
Cambodia remains in the middle of the war against the pandemic. The risk of community transmission is high particularly among the Cambodian migrant workers returning from Thailand. Socio-economic recovery remains tenuous. The government has planned to inject additional US$700 million to support people’s livelihoods. Last year, the government rolled out a stimulus package of more than US$600 million.
Despite its relative success, Cambodia remains vulnerable to the pandemic outbreak. The country has a relatively weak healthcare system and limited access to resources. In the months to come the government will need to accelerate governance reforms to make the public institutions more effective and transparent. It will also need to invest more in healthcare, education and social protection. The fight against the pandemic will be a long one.
Chheang Vannarith is President of Asian Vision Institute.