Workers From More Than 100 Factories in Cambodia’s Capital Region Infected With COVID-19

The latest coronavirus outbreak has prompted lockdowns that are leaving residents increasingly desperate.
2021-04-20
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Workers From More Than 100 Factories in Cambodia’s Capital Region Infected With COVID-19 Vegetables are loaded onto truck that will serve as a mobile shop for families under lockdown restriction in Phnom Penh, April 20, 2021.
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Workers from scores of factories in the vicinity of Cambodia’s capital have been infected with COVID-19 amid the country’s latest coronavirus outbreak, authorities said Tuesday, as residents chafed against a lockdown that has left them without food for days, forcing several to risk arrest to obtain supplies.

Last week, the government implemented 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 requiring 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.

On Tuesday, the Phnom Penh municipal government said that workers from more than 100 factories in the region had been confirmed infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Cambodia, which had largely remained unscathed by the coronavirus in 2020, registered its first death from COVID-19 last month, a year to the day that that the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled it a pandemic. Since then, 49 people have died, and the country’s caseload has reached nearly 7,500 people. Authorities on Tuesday recorded 431 new cases alone.

The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue the lockdown order last week, but residents of affected “red zone” districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao told RFA’s Khmer Service that they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes.

The residents, who are mostly laborers in garment factories and workers in the country’s informal sectors, were told to remain in their dwellings as part of an emergency order on Friday and said they are facing critical shortages, even though Prime Minister Hun Sen had directed authorities to make regular distributions of goods to households during the lockdown.

Garment worker Koeut Sinoeun, the mother of a four-month-old who rents a room in a red zone district, told RFA that she and her husband had both lost their jobs due to the latest outbreak, which began in February, and are now running out of food and milk because of the shelter-in-place order.

“I would like [the authorities] to pay attention to us, because we don’t have food to eat,” she said, adding that she and her husband did not prepare enough supplies because the lockdown order was announced with no prior warning.

A motor taxi driver who also lives in one of the red zones told RFA that his family had barely enough to live on before the outbreak and are now out of savings.

“I haven’t had anything to eat for the past four days,” he said, pleading for help from the government.

In a post to his Facebook account on Tuesday, Hun Sen reneged on an earlier pledge to provide each family in the lockdown areas with 300,000 riels (U.S. $75), saying the government lacks the budget to do so, and instead promising to give them food and rice. He also called for “patience” from the public.

Ministry of Commerce spokesman Penn Sovicheat said three trucks were dispatched to provide food to residents of the three red zones located in Phnom Penh, adding that the ministry will sell necessities and food at below market prices and deliver them to residents’ front doors.

Other effects of lockdown

Meanwhile, authorities have threatened to fine anyone found in breach of the lockdown between 1-20 million riels (U.S. $250-4,950) and punish them with between six months to five years in prison.

Members of the public have complained that the fines are too steep—a concern echoed by president of the Cambodian Informal Economy Workers Association (CIWA) Sok Chhun Oeung, who also cautioned that many residents do not understand the lockdown requirements and called on authorities to educate the community before implementing any punishments.

“Enforcement began as soon as the order was issued, which is not good,” he said. “I think the authorities should be more understanding—start with a warning first.”

Despite the public backlash against last week’s order, at least five people were sentenced to a year in jail for disobeying the curfew and lockdown Tuesday, while police used sticks and batons to chase down and beat those who wandered outsides their homes, sources said.

In a statement a day earlier, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners, called on all stakeholders not to punish its members if they are unable to meet production targets due to the lockdown order, which recognizes their sector as non-essential.

“[In addition to factory closures] the lockdown is also causing disruptions to the logistics sector and we are unable to freely transport raw materials and/or finished goods,” the statement said, adding that many of the employees of GMAC member factories reside within areas they are not permitted to leave for work.

“These factories are unable to operate normally … [which] may result in delay in production as well as failure to meet previously agreed delivery schedules.”

The lockdown also prompted two dozen civil society organizations to issue a statement over the weekend calling on the government to “increase their vigilance and take action to prevent all forms of violence against women, children and LGBT+ individuals that may occur during mandatory quarantine and in areas under lockdown.”

They noted that such measures can lead to “psychological and social consequences,” notably a rise in gender-based violence, due to financial hardships faced by households and their limited capacity to adapt to their new situation, tension and stress during quarantine, drug and alcohol use, crowded spaces at field hospitals and quarantine centers or the inaccessibility of households in lockdown areas.

Restricted visitations

Additionally, the wives of jailed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) former officials and activists expressed concern Monday that their husbands could die in prison if they are prevented from visiting and taking care of them due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Seng Chantha, the wife of former CNRP Kampong Thom provincial councilor Sun Thun, told RFA she has been unable to visit her husband in Prey Sar Prison for more than 20 months. She said he suffers from nephritis, high blood pressure, acidosis, scabies and deteriorating health due to malnutrition.

“It is an injustice for our family that we are blocked from visiting him during this difficult time,” she said. “The prison officials should let us contact him at least once a week by phone, but we are completely incommunicado.”

Similarly, Chen Sovanna, the wife of former Svay Rieng provincial CNRP official Chum Puthy, told RFA she was very worried that her husband could become infected in Prey Sar’s overcrowded conditions.

She said she had not seen Chum Puthy for more than three months since having a baby and that authorities have now barred her from visiting due to the outbreak.

“I have no idea how many people in the prison are infected, so I’m so anxious to go to see him,” she said.

“I want to know how he looks and feels, because my relatives tell me that he is so thin.”

Nuth Savana, the head of the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Prisons, told RFA that Prey Sar’s landline is “about to be disconnected,” so that the women will not be able to contact their husbands by telephone.

Banteay Meanchey provincial head of local rights group ADHOC Ny Sokha said prison officials should allow the jailed activists’ wives to visit them as soon as possible to ensure that they are healthy and to bring them money to buy food, noting that meals served by the jail lack nutritional value.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government.

The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election.

Since 2020, nearly 100 political, environmental, and social activists have been arrested and imprisoned by the authorities for expressing views critical of Hun Sen’s government.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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