TACOMA, Washington — As COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe and turn economies and healthcare upside down, the level of stability in systems of government around the world are being exposed— whether sturdy or fragile. Cambodia is one of the countries that has shown success in addressing COVID-19 in Cambodia, despite being known to have a weaker healthcare system and fewer resources than many other countries.
Addressing COVID-19 in Cambodia
While Cambodia has found success in controlling the outbreak of the virus, the developing COVID-19 crisis has and will continue to affect the entire population of Cambodia. Not only in the health sector but in education, tourism, trade and finance as well. This causes unique challenges for the country regarding Cambodia’s already problematic loan crisis, returning migrants from Thailand and its vital garment industry. Although poverty is expected to increase from 13.5% in 2014 to 20% during the pandemic, many measures have been put into place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 along with its social and economic ramifications.
A World Leader in Containing COVID-19
On November 19, 2020, Cambodia reported only 304 confirmed cases, with 291 recovered and zero deaths. One of the many key factors responsible for this is prioritized funding. A National Master Plan initiated a budget of $62 million to combat the virus.
In addition, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced to donate seven months of his salary (roughly $17,500) along with several other government officials who have pledged to donate.
Targeted testing, extensive contact tracing and the training of 2,900 health care workers as early as January and February 2020, also helped. Government control plays a role as well, the passing of a state of emergency law has allowed unlimited telecommunications surveillance and restrictions on freedom of movement. Cambodia’s experience with SARS back in 2003 and the avian flu between 2004 and 2010 are also considerable factors regarding Cambodia’s success in combating the virus.
COVID-19 is Exposing Cambodia’s Loan Crisis
Roughly 2.6 million Cambodians with limited access to traditional banking have resorted to joining licensed microfinance institutions, a system Cambodians have relied on even before the COVID-19 outbreak. With the average yearly income being only $1,700, borrowers have created a total debt of $10 billion in 2019 alone, making the average loan about $3,804 per person — the highest amount in the world, according to the local rights group, Licadho. Poorer rural areas are targeted the most by these institutions as they lack law enforcement and have little regulatory vigilance.
With COVID-19 bruising the economy, the amount of debt has only increased as Cambodians require the funds to be self-sustained. In reaction, human rights groups have asked the government to freeze repayments as well as demand that lenders return more than one million land titles held as collateral. This has restructured loans for around 270,000 citizens as a way to help cope with the economic fallout of COVID-19 in Cambodia.
The Plight of Returning Migrant Workers
Thousands of migrants have returned from Thailand since the global pandemic and it has raised a lot of concerns about virus transmission. The majority of migrants have returned to rural areas that are more difficult to monitor and have a scarcity of testing and treatments. The United Nations in Cambodia, under the leadership of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), is working closely to mobilize support by organizing technical teams that focus on health and protections as well as food and security.
Lethal Hit for Cambodia’s Garment Industry
Once a flourishing industry, Cambodia’s garment profits are facing a major financial hit due to COVID-19. Up to 130 factories have needed to close down operations since many western clothing brands have canceled orders or are ordering significantly fewer products. The garment industry employs about 750,000 workers, making it the biggest employer in the Southeast Asian nation. Due to the pandemic, over 100,000 Cambodians have lost their jobs. In an attempt to salvage damages, the government has decided to provide a $70 monthly stimulus to help workers who have been suspended, which is less than 40% of the country’s minimum wage.
COVID-19: Opportunity for Health System Transformation
Cambodia is a country that already carried existing vulnerabilities. More than 60% of Cambodians have no health insurance, which amounts to at least 10 million people with no financial protection when they become ill. This means that COVID-19 in Cambodia raises even more challenges for at-risk communities.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) is developing investments in Cambodia’s healthcare system that suggests roles and responsibilities for health centers in the events of any prospective community transmissions. Actions such as expanding the use of multisource surveillance, developing specific COVID-19 response plans and providing greater support to prepare hospitals, emphasize the country’s prioritization of COVID-19 in Cambodia.
As Cambodia’s regression back into poverty becomes a daunting reality, the country has nevertheless shown success in COVID-9 containment efforts. Given Cambodia’s respective frailties and circumstances, the country’s success in addressing COVID-19 in Cambodia exemplifies not only what a nation can accomplish but what it can look forward to achieving when advancement is an essential priority.
– Alyssa McGrail