With more than 25 years of experience in public health, Li Ailan has been head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Representative Office for Cambodia since July 2019.
Li, who has a particular interest in emerging infectious diseases and emergency risk management including pandemic preparedness, worked closely with the Ministry of Health (MoH) at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Post sat down with Li on her experiences working with the Cambodian government and health ministry, especially during the gravest global health emergency in a century.
How was working with the Cambodian health ministry in the fight against Covid-19?
I have found working closely with our national counterparts, especially the Ministry of Health, on the challenging Covid-19 response very motivating and satisfying, as we can see and feel our contribution having positive impacts on promoting health, keeping Cambodia safe and protecting the vulnerable, during the very difficult times of the pandemic.
Fighting against Covid-19 has been at the centre of our work with MoH and beyond. There have been many challenges, but every crisis is also an opportunity to improve our systems and capacities for a better future. Serving people, building trust and working as one team with our professionalism, passion and positive energy are crucial for our work.
Together with MoH, we also work on “health beyond the health sector” in partnership on Covid-19 including local preparedness, and maintaining essential health programmes and services such as malaria elimination, maternal and child health, mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS), and non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and control.
Having a wonderful opportunity to listen, understand and talk directly to the Cambodian people we serve is one of the best experiences and motivations for me in Cambodia. Together with my MoH and WHO colleagues, I have travelled extensively throughout the country, including to some very remote areas, during the pandemic.
The field missions on Covid-19 and beyond have taught me a lot both about the beautiful country of Cambodia, and given me a better understanding of the Cambodian people’s health needs, health system and local context, allowing me to provide more relevant WHO strategic advice and technical support to the Ministry of Health and partners.
I look forward to continuing this good working relationship with MoH for the future. Together, we are using the momentum of the Covid -19 response to strengthen Cambodia’s health system, including refocusing on Primary Health Care (PHC) as a foundation for Universal Health Coverage (UHC).
This approach is called the “Cambodia PHC Booster”. Under the leadership of the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) and MoH, we will continue our strategic advice and technical support in improving national and local preparedness for future health emergencies, as the Covid -19 pandemic will not be the last health and economic crisis.
What I enjoyed with RGC, especially MoH, is trust. I am so grateful that WHO is much trusted by MoH.
What do you think of the approaches the Cambodian government and health ministry took in the fight against Covid-19?
The Royal Government of Cambodia, the Ministry of Health and Cambodian people should be heartily commended on the Covid-19 response, especially the remarkable vaccination rollout.
Under the strong leadership of RGC, Cambodia has been applying both whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches to the pandemic response. The health sector plays a key role, but no single agency alone can manage Covid-19.
We can see the positive result of Cambodia’s extraordinary efforts and the collective fight against the virus. I feel happy for Cambodians, as more and more people can now enjoy their new normal life, including safe school reopening and gradual business recovery.
In my opinion, government leadership, public participation, cooperation and solidarity have been important factors driving Cambodia’s pandemic response and success.
The proactive Covid-19 vaccination rollout – including securing adequate vaccines for all eligible people and planning ahead – with its focus on protecting high-risk groups first, such as all health care workers and the vulnerable – such as the elderly – has been one of the best in the world and very impressive.
In Cambodia, the Covid-19 response has also been undertaken while continuing the provision of essential health services. Routine immunisation continued throughout the pandemic, as did maternal and child healthcare, and malaria elimination.
Even during the pandemic, Cambodia’s malaria caseload continued to decline to reach historically low levels through Cambodia’s innovative “last mile” strategy.
How would you evaluate the attitude of Cambodian people towards protecting themselves from Covid-19?
The collective safety of our society is based on individual actions. Individuals, families and communities have a vital role to play and we all should demonstrate our greater social responsibility.
Protecting ourselves and our families also means that we are reducing the health burden on our society. In my observation, the Cambodian people did an excellent job despite some challenges in fighting against Covid-19. The pandemic is not over and we must continue to be vigilant.
I would like to take this opportunity to applaud and recognise the effort and contribution of every single person in Cambodia to slow the spread of Covid-19. We all donned our masks, we all physically distanced, practised cough and hand hygiene, and maximised ventilation whenever possible.
We did it all to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. Overall, the Cambodian people are very knowledgeable about Covid-19 and they care for their family and community.
It has been a very hard two years, and we are grateful that Cambodia has now reopened safely and sustainably, and we should all be very proud.
Regarding the success of the fight against Covid-19, how has the WHO contributed to the efforts of the Ministry of Health?
WHO serves as the directing and coordinating authority for health within the UN system. WHO connects its 194 Member States, partners and people to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.
WHO’s core functions include providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries, and monitoring and assessing health trends.
WHO Cambodia, with the support from the WHO regional office for the Western Pacific, based in Manila in the Philippines and headquartered in Geneva, has been working closely with MoH and partners in fighting against Covid-19.
We have been focusing on the provision of our strategic advice on Covid-19 preparedness and response as guided by the WHO’s global and regional frameworks for action, evidence-based policy options, translating and adapting various WHO guidelines.
We also focus on the provision of day-to-day technical support and response operations, coordinating health partners, and serving as the technical lead agency for health response in the UN system in Cambodia.
We always stand ready to support the Ministry of Health with technical advice. We advised and supported the development and implementation of the Cambodia Covid-19 Master Plan and the adjustment of Cambodia’s strategy for sustained management of Covid-19 that covers all the important technical areas.
With rapid scale-up of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout, Cambodia reached the WHO’s target of 70 per cent vaccination coverage in September 2021, eight months ahead of the June 2022 goal, and it is one of the top countries globally for Covid-19 vaccination coverage.
What have you learned about Cambodia in terms of the health sector?
I hope we all have learned that “if health is at risk, everything is at risk”, including in Cambodia. There is a clear need to invest in health as a wise investment for sustainable social and economic development for a better future. Outbreaks and emergencies will continue to occur, and all countries including Cambodia need to be better prepared for future health emergencies.
I have learned that Cambodians appreciate the Covid-19 response, especially the successful vaccination rollout, and the important role of the health sector. Meanwhile, Cambodians also expect and hope for an upgraded health system and quality services for the future.
I have learned that Cambodian health workers sincerely care for their patients, and community. I have learned that the Ministry of Health is committed to continually improving the health system for all the Cambodian people despite some ongoing and future challenges.
There is much to do to ensure “health for all” and leave no one behind, including protecting the vulnerable through universal health coverage. We all are grateful that the Royal Government of Cambodia is committed to working for the future. We at WHO are committed to support MoH and beyond, including refocusing on Primary Health Care, and strengthening the Cambodian health system and health priorities.