A total of 141 Buddhist monks and laypeople at 151 pagodas in Phnom Penh tested positive for Covid-19 over the first two days of the 15-day Pchum Ben festival before it was suspended for fear of large-scale outbreaks.
Municipal Department of Cults and Religions director Tep Kongkea confirmed to The Post on September 26 that 97 of the 141 people are monks.
He said the 151 pagodas have been disinfected while the festival has been officially suspended following the government’s decision issued on September 23.
“We suspended the festivities but haven’t closed the pagodas. People can still go there individually . . . They can come to the pagoda alone or in pairs and bring alms to the front of the pagoda and give them to the monks from there,” he said.
Cambodian Buddhists observe Pchum Ben for 15 days – this year from September 22 to October 6 with the principal festivities celebrated from October 5-7 – ending a day after the main day of “great offering”, or Ben Thom, on October 6, coinciding with the new moon. The holiday is dedicated to honouring one’s ancestors and is traditionally an occasion for families to gather for reunions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has appealed for public understanding of his decision to suspend the festival. He said it was a tough decision made to avert disaster and save the people’s lives.
In an audio message addressing the nation on September 25, he noted that in just the first three days of the 15-day festival, nearly half of all of the pagodas in Phnom Penh had suffered outbreaks.
“I beg monks and all Buddhist followers to understand the decision that I was forced to make. This is to protect the lives and health of our people. This is to ensure that our country will not see large-scale outbreaks and deaths as in other countries like India, where a large number of transmissions were traced back to a religious event,” he said.
“As the head of the government, I cannot sit around letting Covid-19 surge and people die due to negligence. I hope our compatriots, monks and all Buddhist followers can understand my decision to ensure the survival of our people.
“If half of all pagodas in Phnom Penh continued to observe Pchum Ben until the main day, how many more monks and laypeople would contract Covid-19?” he asked.
He said Cambodia had already vaccinated over 13 million adults and children out of a target population of 14 million and a total population of roughly 16 million – including children as young as six years old. This, he said, may beg the question as to why Covid-19 cases are surging despite such a high rate of vaccinations.
“As I have said before, vaccination alone is not enough. It can only reduce transmissions and hospitalisations and prevent infected people from developing severe conditions that can lead to death. It is adherence to health measures that counts most in terms of total prevention,” he said.
The prime minister said his greatest concern was that the disease could spread in the pagodas and then become widespread throughout the community.
“You can observe religious events every year, but if you die of Covid-19, you will no longer have a chance to celebrate the events. If you visit a pagoda only to bring home a deadly disease, it is not worth it,” he said.
He said his decision might have upset some people who do not understand the necessity of preventive measures against the highly contagious virus. Some people in the opposition group, he added, have even insulted him for his decision.
“When I saw samples collected at the pagodas for testing, I got goose-bumps because I realised that if the festival continued, the virus could spread from those pagodas to the community,” he said.
Although Pchum Ben has been suspended, the prime minister said people can still enjoy the three-day public holiday, especially by visiting Cambodia’s natural tourist attractions with proper organisation because they are outdoor sites and therefore well-ventilated.
Or Vandine, health ministry spokeswoman and head of national Covid-19 vaccination committee, said she supports the suspension of Pchum Ben and that the government would only have to spend more money on increased efforts to control the spread of the disease should it break out again due to the festival.
“We have to consider the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak during the festival and how much manpower we will then have to use in order to contain it. If it were to happen we would have to spend a lot of money to get the situation under control again,” she said.
She explained that the expenses would be for buying rapid test kits, medicines and medical supplies and paying health workers and others. She said it would also affect the livelihoods of the people and all of society.
“When Covid-19 cases were found one after another at some pagodas on the first day of the festival, it was a signal that community transmission was happening somewhere that we had not identified. So we have taken immediate action to prevent it from spreading further,” she said.