Since Covid-19 was first reported as a world health issue, cruise ships have been the worst to suffer after airlines.
The experiences of those who were initially trapped on the Covid-19-stricken Diamond Princess are unimaginable. The cruise ship was rejected from docking at one port, territory and country after another.
The MS Westerdam, an American ship with over 2,200 passengers and crew, suffered the same fate. It was denied docking rights in no less than five countries – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and the US territory of Guam.
The passengers and crew of this ship had been floating in limbo, unwanted and shunned. No nation offered a helping hand either.
Compassion faded into the background as politicians faced internal pressures to err on the side of precaution. While it is every country’s right to protect its citizens first, the fact remains that humanity, let alone human rights, took a back seat and was nowhere to be found.
Selfish, self-centred interests ruled the day. But Cambodia took the bull by the horns, showed compassion and allowed her to dock at Preah Sihanouk port.
Cambodia led the way in showing compassion for the 41 nationalities aboard the ship, who were mostly Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch.
The Kingdom did the right thing and deserves to be credited for showing the way to what real leadership means while respecting the health and safety procedures defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Those procedures required necessary medical checks on 20 suspected disease carriers and the screening of the remaining passengers and crew.
Cambodia won praise from US President Donald Trump, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, UN World Tourism Organisation secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili and many others.
Today, health experts agree that locking passengers onboard their cruise ship and in supposed quarantine is not the way to halt the spread of any disease, let alone Covid-19.
The Lancet, one of the foremost independent and international weekly general medical journals founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley, has the following advice to give as a strategy for dealing with Covid-19.
The Lancet says that compassion combined with best practices is the way to go. Best practices are only as good as what we know right now.
Cambodia took all precautions. It sent an advance medical team to the MS Westerdam to check on the health of its passengers and crew, and to ascertain they were free of illness. This follows WHO procedures with respect to passenger rights.
Immigration and other officials went on board the ship as well. They collected passports to process the passengers’ visas for disembarkation and onward flights to their home countries.
But this is not all that the Kingdom has done. Cambodia is by no means complacent in its response to Covid-19.
The problem, if one can call it that, is perception. The Cambodian government does not wish to panic its citizens to react as those of some countries have – causing national chaos by raiding supermarkets and hoarding consumer goods out of fear of a lockdown and quarantine.
Two national-level working groups have been formed. They are coordinating with hospitals and private clinics across the Kingdom to screen and isolate any patient with Covid-19-like symptoms. Health officials are also working closely with Institut Pasteur du Cambodge for laboratory testing.
And like all other countries, Cambodia strictly follows WHO guidelines which include country-level coordination, planning and monitoring; risk communication and community engagement, and carrying out surveillance, initiating rapid-response teams, and conducting case investigations.
It is also monitoring points of entry, has organised national laboratories to conduct tests, is advising on infection prevention and control, carrying out case management, as well as providing operations support and logistics where required. The MS Westerdam incident is a case in point.
As Prime Minister Hun Sen says: “People talk of fear of Covid-19, but for me, I think differently.
“When asked if Cambodia would allow the cruise ship to dock if the passengers were infected with coronavirus, my answer is that I would allow the ship to dock as soon as possible as we cannot leave the patients to die at sea.
“It is high time we joined hands to address the issue facing us. The virus does not harm just a single country. Many countries face this issue. How can we talk about respecting human rights if the right to life is not even respected?”
As if to prove a point, an 83-year-old American passenger from the MS Westerdam was later found to have been infected with Covid-19 when she landed in Malaysia for her onward flight home.
And naturally, questions were raised about how well the Cambodian authorities conducted the health checks. Fact is, the exact period of gestation and propagation for Covid-19 are still not known.
Hence, it is highly possible that the passenger did not exhibit a fever or any symptom of illness when checked by Cambodian medical personnel, but showed signs of Covid-19 infection hours later as she landed in Malaysia.
Systematic and invasive testing on all passengers and crew would violate the individual rights and is unnecessary according to WHO procedures.
One thing is certain though, keeping people trapped in close quarters is not good, says The Lancet.
The Japanese have been “gently” criticised for this, but governments are not slamming the country for it, vis-a-vis the Diamond Princess.
Following the Cambodian experience, the US, Canada and other countries have taken their citizens off of her.
The Lancet says that as the evolution of the virus progresses, the way the authorities are dealing with those affected is evolving as well.
What is important now is to keep the tone calm and stay on message regarding what citizens should do to protect themselves. Governments that show panic will, for certain, panic their citizens as well.
People are learning lessons every hour, every day. In terms of the MS Westerdam, Cambodia has done the right thing!
Joshua Purushotman is the Executive Editor-in-Chief of The Phnom Penh Post.