Cambodia smashed its record of COVID-19 cases Thursday, with nearly 900 people infected from the disease caused by the coronavirus, while the country’s death toll rose to 91 and its total caseload increased to more than 12,000.
Neighboring Laos also recorded new highs with more than five dozen new infections, bringing the country’s total caseload to more than 670 and forcing the one-party communist nation to cancel annual Labor Day festivities.
The latest developments suggest that Southeast Asia is not out of the woods yet, even after many of the region’s nations experienced a relatively low caseload in most of 2020, and infections and deaths are a tiny fraction of those in Western countries and in India.
On Thursday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said that 880 people tested positive for COVID-19 and three people died from the disease. The country’s caseload rose to 12,641.
While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s economy—which leans heavily on the production of textiles—has been battered by a drop in export demand and a series of lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the virus. Migrant workers in next-door Thailand also lost their jobs in lockdowns.
The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue a 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao in Kandal province from April 15-28 and require the two cities’ combined 2.3 million residents to adhere to a strict curfew or, in certain “red zones,” stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency.
That lockdown was extended by a week on Monday and authorities say that more extensions could come if residents don’t adhere to the stay-at-home order.
Long-running lockdowns have also been ordered throughout various parts of the country in a bid to stem the spread of an outbreak that began in March, prompting residents to express frustration that they cannot earn an income or buy the food and supplies they need to weather the shutdown.
More than 100 villagers in Stung Meanchey province who are in another lockdown situation recently told RFA’s Khmer Service that they are facing food shortages and need the government’s help. They held protests Thursday with banners that read “My Village is Starving” and shouted slogans asking for relief.
“When we are starving, I’d rather die—food is more important than COVID-19, so we held a protest. But no village officials met with us,” said villager Moeun Samorn, who recently lost her factory job, adding that she has only five containers of rice left and can no longer feed the six members of her family.
A resident living in a lockdown area of Sihanoukville city named Chan Saron said she has 10 family members to take care of, as well as her husband, who is a construction worker.
The mother of a recent newborn told RFA that she now has little money to buy milk or rice for her children, and that her husband has had to borrow from neighbors to obtain food or been forced to harvest snails near their home to cook.
“I don’t have any food—even canned fish,” she said. “I went to put the fishing net in the lake behind my house and caught a few fish. I do not know what to do now, so I had to borrow [food] from neighbors.”
She said her area was locked down by the authorities on April 23, but so far, she has yet to receive any assistance or food from the government.
Call for assistance
Coordinator for the Adhoc Human Rights Association in Sihanoukville, Cheab Sotheary, told RFA that people facing food shortages in the area are mostly low-income, including construction and factory workers.
“Those in charge of statistics should hurry to provide [food], because these villages were declared ‘red zones’ on April 23,” he said.
“Some of them must be starving because they can’t go out to find anything. These people, their livelihood is to earn what they eat in a day.”
Preah Sihanouk Provincial Hall spokesman Kheang Phearum said that provincial authorities and stakeholders have “enough food” to distribute to the people in the lockdown areas. He said authorities were ready to distribute food to more than 12,000 families in both the red zone and curfew areas.
He acknowledged that in some places the authorities have not yet provided food but suggested that people facing food shortages “contact local authorities through social media so that the authorities can provide food to them.”
“We will arrange for immediate delivery so that no one faces a famine,” he said.
Alejandro Gonzales Davidson, founder of local environmental watchdog Mother Nature, said Hun Sen must return Cambodia to a democracy “in order to make sure western countries provide aid,” noting that Cambodia “can’t rely on China alone.”
China has stepped in to wield significant influence in Cambodia as relations between Phnom Penh and Western governments have waned amid concerns over the country’s human rights situation and political environment.
Hun Sen’s government lacks a budget or the ability to assist the country’s villagers, observers say, otherwise he would have helped them obtain credit.
Nonetheless, Hun Sen warned people criticizing his handling of the coronavirus and other policies on Thursday that, “he will rely on China.”
Rapid increase in infections
Also, in neighboring Laos, COVID-19 infections ramped up dramatically Thursday, with 68 new cases reported, bringing the country’s overall caseload to 672. The new infections led authorities to issue a rare cancellation of Labor Day, a holiday regularly celebrated by communist governments in honor of the workforce that formally props them up.
A health worker in Champassak province, which measured the second highest number of cases in the country on Thursday, told RFA’s Lao Service that quarantines are essential to blocking the spread of the coronavirus.
“If you go to another district, you can’t come back home right away—you have to be quarantined there for 14 days,” the worker said.
A resident of Vientiane province told RFA that restrictions prevented anyone from leaving the city.
“Even to go to the market, we have to ask for written permission from the village chief,” the resident said.
A member of the Lao Labor Union told RFA that Labor Day had been canceled due to the ongoing outbreak.
“All activities were canceled in compliance with the Prime Minister’s order, which bans all large gatherings because of the spread of COVID-19,” they said.
Meanwhile, unemployment is growing in impoverished Laos because of the coronavirus, sources told RFA.
“Thousands of Laotians have become unemployed due to the lockdown,” a union member said.
“A lot of businesses and factories are closed and the number of jobless is growing.”
No jobs to be had
A young unemployed man in Savannakhet province told RFA his efforts to find a job had proven worthless during the pandemic.
“I applied for job with some businesses earlier, but they’re all closed right now,” he said. “I have nothing to do except help my parents around the farm and garden.”
An unemployed woman in Oudomxay province said she had sought a job for three months with no success.
“Nobody will take me on because of the outbreak, so I went back to the countryside to help my parents work in the garden and rice field.”
A labor official in the capital Vientiane said the prospect for jobs is bleak amidst the outbreak
“It’s hard to find jobs for the unemployed right now because all businesses and factories are closed,” the official said.
“We would like to set up a job training program, but we don’t have the budget for it.”
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