While the majority of Cambodians have paid heed to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to stay put and not travel during the Khmer New Year – the holidays of which were also postponed – several hundred have left Phnom Penh nonetheless.
They have allegedly breached provincial borders, including those that were under police supervision, despite travel restrictions imposed by the government last week to stem the spread of Covid-19.
The departure correlates with the eerie silence at dusk in the city that has witnessed the emptying out of its inhabitants since last weekend. This is evidenced by the voluntary closure of shops including cafes, restaurants and stalls that are usually staffed by people who come from different provinces.
An hour-long live telecast on Facebook by independent television station VOEA TV Online at Neak Loeung Bridge between Kandal and Prey Veng provinces on Saturday showed motorists being allowed to cross the border after their temperatures were taken by supposed health officials stationed there.
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Chhay Kim Khoeun confirmed this to The Post and said: “I am aware of people leaving for Khmer New Year via small roads and illegal means, but I don’t have the exact numbers.”
He said the second directive by the government which relaxed travel prohibitions and allowed people to move within perimeters of the province, was allegedly interpreted as being “less strict”. And this likely contributed to the movement of people.
Kim Khoeun noted that many left for their hometowns on April 9 and 10, but since April 11, travellers crossing the checkpoints were less than 7,000 per day and a majority of them comprised government officials or garment workers.
“I think business outlets that closed do not have many staff working there. So if 100 stalls are closed, not many would have travelled home,” Kim Khoeun said.
On Monday, Minister of Health Mam Hun Heng warned that communities could contract Covid-19, leading to deaths if people defied guidelines and travel restrictions.
The situation is fragile, and continued communal spreading could complicate the process of identifying the source.
At a construction site on Hun Sen Boulevard, the usual workforce of some 50 people was missing, owing to some who allegedly packed up and left two days ago.
A worker who runs a sundry shop next door said many employees left for their provinces to celebrate Khmer New Year because they “are not scared of the virus”.
“They took the bus back home because their homes are far. The government ordered Cambodians not to travel home but they are not scared of the virus. My sister and I decided to stay back. We are not brave,” said the worker from Pursat province.
Cambodia Constructors Association general manager Chiv Sivpheng foresees a problem unfolding after the Khmer New Year holidays, acknowledging that some construction workers would have slipped back home in the absence of work due to the shortage of construction materials.
“They don’t understand the seriousness of Covid-19 as their knowledge is limited. Yes, we understand that celebrating Khmer New Year with family is a tradition.
“But everyone was told to stay at home. Some of our members complained that some workers returned even after the project manager explained the consequences to them.
“They will have to be quarantined for 14 days after they come back [from the holidays] but how do we monitor their movement? There is going to be a problem soon. We are worried,” Sivpheng told The Post.
Last Thursday, Hun Sen postponed the Khmer New Year holidays which is scheduled from April 13-16, saying that businesses would operate as usual. He ordered the almost instant halt to human movement across provinces and district borders until April 16.
The order was implemented following the steady uptick of Covid-19 cases and a possible spike if factory workers – some 1.2 million of them – and other employees were allowed to return home, as well as to curb large assemblies and mass prayers.
As of Tuesday, 122 people have tested positive and 91 had recovered. Some 8,909 have been tested.
Junior research fellow Horn Chanvoitey of independent public policy think-tank Future Forum, who wrote an opinion piece on online portal Southeast Asia Globe, suggested that Cambodian healthcare is likely to be overwhelmed by the outbreak soon.
Chanvoitey cited reasons such as the large entry of migrant workforce from Thailand, low capacity of monitoring returning workers, lack of healthcare professionals and experts, and inadequate intensive care unit beds, as a cause for worry.
Additionally, she said, despite donations of medical supplies by foreign parties, the bigger problem emanates from the lack of necessary knowledge, specialists and equipment to handle an outbreak.
“Therefore these donations may be far from enough if the pandemic continues to spread quickly in the Kingdom, especially given Cambodia’s insufficient health facilities in rural provinces,” she stressed.
For starters, Chanvoitey said the government should make Covid-19 testing a priority, particularly for garment workers as they are the backbone of the economy.
She also asked that the government be clearer in relation to its preparedness and progress to enable the public to understand more about the situation on the ground.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen’s urgent order caused a frenzy among Cambodians who wanted to beat the midnight border closure deadline to get back home for the annual celebration.
A day later, he revised the order which enabled the movement of people within provinces but not across provincial borders.
A leeway was also made for garment workers who work in neighbouring provinces, and for those who needed to get to hospitals and healthcare centres, but this is only allowed for people travelling on motorcycles or no more than four passengers in a car.
Besides, the order specified that those who insisted on travelling would be subjected to a 14-day quarantine at their destination and vice versa when they return.
Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said many garment workers who were suspended because of factory closures would have returned home before the travel ban.
Some 50,000 garment workers out of 860,000 who are employed in 1,180 factories were affected after 100 plants suspended operations due to a lack of raw material as well as order cancellation and deferment by western retailers due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“There are also factories that allowed workers to take leave from April 4 which is prior to the order. We have instructed operations to not approve leave for workers. Those who went without any permission did so on unpaid leave. I don’t have the number for that,” he told The Post.
Meanwhile, Kim Khoeun said Cambodia is not in a state of emergency, so the order was merely a preventive measure.
“What we are doing is to protect them, so I think they understand the reason for the government’s measures. [However, I believe] this is why many people are not travelling,” he opined.