Cambodia, Laos Suffer Worst Day of COVID-19 Infections on Record

The two countries had evaded significant impact from the coronavirus until recently.
Cambodia, Laos Suffer Worst Day of COVID-19 Infections on Record A vendor walks near a closed market in Phnom Penh, April 23, 2021.

Cambodia shattered its daily record of COVID-19 infections on Friday amid a worsening outbreak with nearly 700 cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus, while neighboring Laos saw a dramatic uptick in infections with its largest count to date, suggesting the pandemic is far from over in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said that in addition to the 700 people who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, the country’s death toll from the pandemic rose to 61 with a caseload of more than 8,000 people.

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.

Residents of the affected red zone districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao have said they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes, and claim they are running out of supplies.

Authorities have also 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. More than 120 people have been arrested, with several being detained and charged for disobeying the curfew and lockdown since April 15.

Police in the capital region have been using batons and sticks to chase and beat people wandering outside of their homes in recent days—videos of which were distributed by local authorities via posts to their Facebook accounts.

Two-star General Sum Pov in an undated photo. RFA

Military abuses

Meanwhile, NGOs on Friday urged Cambodia’s courts to prosecute military officers who have “abused their power” during the lockdown to the fullest extent of the law. The call came after Ministry of Defense two-star general Sum Pov was arrested for helping nearly 30 Chinese nationals flee a lockdown in Svay Rieng Province to Phnom Penh.

Sum Pov is currently being questioned along with six other soldiers at the Svay Rieng Provincial Court related to accusations of breaching the government’s lockdown order. King Norodom Sihamoni has already issued a Royal Decree to remove him from his position at the Ministry of Defense.

Court Chief Secretariat Tep Phalla told RFA’s Khmer Service that the prosecutor has yet to charge the suspects. He said that the case will proceed on April 24 after the prosecutor passes the case to the investigative judge.

The 28 Chinese nationals detained in the case are currently in the midst of a two-week quarantine. Authorities will consider whether to expel them from the country or prosecute them when their quarantine is complete, police officials said.

Am Sam Ath of local rights organization Licadho welcomed the authorities’ rare arrest of a high-ranking military officer, calling it “a serious case … [that] needs to be examined strictly, with justice applied equally,” he said.

Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for Cambodian rights advocacy group Adhoc also welcomed the court’s actions.

“They are high-ranking officers, so they understand the government’s measures to prevent [the spread of the coronavirus], but they used their positions to their own benefit,” he said.

Recently, another two-star police general named Ung Chanthouk was also arrested for attending a party despite the lockdown. He was sent to jail and fired from his position in the Ministry of Interior.

Laotians line up to buy coronavirus protective gear in Vientiane, April 22, 2021. RFA

Laos hits new record

In Laos, the Ministry of Health identified 65 people Friday who had been infected with COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 159, according to Sisavath Southanilaxay, director of the infectious diseases department for the ministry and a representative of the COVID-19 protection unit.

“Of the newly infected people, 60 are from [the capital] Vientiane, two are from Champassak province, two are from Bokeo province, and one is from Vientiane province,” he said.

“All of them have been sent for treatment at their local hospitals,” he added.

Laos, a landlocked and impoverished nation, was also largely spared from the brunt of global infections in 2020, but has taken a devastating economic hit amidst the pandemic. Tourist visits plummeted and earnings from Lao migrant laborers working in Thailand fell dramatically.

PhonePradith Xayarath, head of the Institute of Infectious Diseases, told RFA that Laos has limited vaccination facilities, resulting in an inefficient inoculation protocol in crowded settings where people can pass the coronavirus to one another.

“Another contributing factor to the slow process is that we have a limited number of health officials to administer the vaccines,” he said.

“Our medical staff is working all day and night, resulting in a slower and inefficient vaccination process.

As of Thursday, authorities had set up six mobile health vaccination centers throughout Vientiane municipality, PhonePradith Xayarath said.

Another health official claimed that due to limited facilities, only between 200-300 people can expect to be vaccinated daily.

A health official at the COVID-19 vaccine unit in Mahosoth hospital—one of the recently established vaccination centers—told RFA that vaccination groups are being divided into three groups: state officials who are at risk while on the job, people who are “high risk” and the general public.

Each day more than 1,000 people line up to get a vaccine injection, the official said, adding that amidst the crowds “not all of them can be vaccinated.”

On Thursday, the Lao government ordered a lockdown on Vientiane city, banning movement, closing down entertainment venues, closing schools, ordering civil servants to stay at home and calling on border officials and military units to patrol border areas to prevent people from entering the urban area illegally and spreading the coronavirus. On Friday, most provinces in Laos followed suit.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Lao Services, Translated by Samean Yun and Sidney Khotpanya. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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