Cambodia reopens despite ongoing COVID pandemic, while neighboring Laos hunkers down

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Monday he would lift restrictions on domestic travel and begin opening up the country to foreign tourists, even as its antiquated medical system struggles to treat people infected by the highly contagious respiratory illness.

Meanwhile, a new outbreak in Laos led its government to extend an existing lockdown by 15 days amid new complaints that officials there have not done enough to provide economic assistance to businesses suffering under the restrictions.

The death toll in Cambodia from COVID-19 climbed to 2,794 people after six new fatalities were reported on Monday, according to the Ministry of Health. The country’s death rate is greater than 2.3 percent of the total number of infections, which is a higher incidence of fatalities than reported in other countries in Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

Hun Sen said the answer is not to maintain further limits on his country’s economy but to improve treatment for people infected by the virus.

“The infection rate is not something that should be of concern, but the death rate is,” Hun Sen said at a ceremony to launch the next phase of the vaccination program at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh. “We must employ all relevant mechanisms in continuing to monitor and assess the progress of the COVID situation on a daily basis, especially with regard to any serious conditions development among our COVID patients.”

The new policy removes restrictions on travel for people living in Cambodia. While the country remains closed to foreign visitors, that will begin to change on Nov. 30 when international tourists who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to travel to Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Island, the Dara Sakor resort in Botum Sakor, and the Koh Kong province, Hun Sen said.

Foreign tourists must remain in quarantine for five days within those areas but will not be confined inside their rooms, he said. If the loosening of restrictions does not lead to new outbreaks, the government will open the Siem Reap-Angkor sites to fully vaccinated foreign tourists as well, Hun Sen said.

Residents of country must learn to live with some risk from COVID, as it is unlikely the virus will be completely contained, he said.

Nearly 86% of Cambodia’s population who are 6 years of age or older have been vaccinated, Hun Sen said.

Cambodia is now beginning to give doses to 5-year-olds, Hun Sen said.

But some analysts see a political motivation behind the moves announced Monday.

The government has been criticized for relying on Chinese vaccines as a defense against the virus, while some critics say they are less effective than ones developed in the West at preventing infections of the contagious delta variant, said Meas Nee, an independent political analyst.

“About 80-90 percent of our population has been vaccinated among specific age groups, so if we continue to close the country it means that the government does not trust or have confidence in its vaccination campaign,” Meas Nee said. “To show its confidence in the Chinese vaccine, the government has to decide to reopen the country.”

That could be a risky move, given that the country’s health system has struggled to meet the needs of infected patients who become seriously ill. Government officials should work to improve conditions at hospitals and other medical facilities outside the capital, said physician Ouch Vuthy.

Cambodia’s health system lacks equipment, medicine and treatment rooms for patients, he said. The government should seek technical assistance and medical equipment from foreign nations to help cope with these issues, Ouch Vuthy said.

“At the subnational level, we still lack a lot of medical equipment,” he said. “The Ministry of Health should conduct inspections and make sure provincial hospitals are equipped with modernized medical equipment as are hospitals in Phnom Penh.”

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A woman wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic rides a motorbike past a billboard in Laos’ capital Vientiane, March 11, 2020. Credit: AFP

Extended lockdown in Laos

Laos’ medical system has also struggled under the pressures of the pandemic.

On Monday, Laos recorded 685 new cases, raising the total of COVID infections past the 41,000 mark, according to the Ministry of Health. Two more Laotians have died due to complications from the virus, raising that total to 67 people, according to the ministry.

The new infections prompted government officials to extend an existing COVID lockdown throughout most of the country for another 15 days, until Nov. 14, despite calls from some Laotians suffering financially to reopen the country’s economy.

A member of the National Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control in Vientiane, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely, told RFA on Monday that most of the lockdown measures remain the same as previously. Traveling in and out of the infected or red zones is prohibited.

“The number of cases remains high, and people are scared,” he said. “We can’t let our guard down. If we do, the virus will spread all over the country, and the situation will get worse.”

To cope with a recent influx of 154 COVID patients who could not all be accommodated in seven area hospitals, officials in Bokeo province had to turn the provincial convention center into a makeshift hospital, according to local media.

Houmphanh Inthamoungkhoun, head of the Health Department of Oudomxay province, said that authorities there are setting up a makeshift virus treatment center at an indoor sports facility to handle the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

In Hinheup district, Vientiane province, authorities suspended classes at a high school and used the building as a temporary treatment center.

On Monday, Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh told the National Assembly, which began its second session of the year, that the government is working to acquire money to implement development plans, revive the economy badly affected by the pandemic, and pay off its rising U.S. $13 billion debt to the World Bank.

The lockdown has come at a steep cost and frustration is growing among some business owners over what they see as a lack of financial help from the government.

“I understand that the number of COVID-19 cases is still high, and I understand that the government has to take strict measures, but businesses like hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues have been dead for months,” a business owner in Vientiane said. “Farmers can still go to work, but small business owners like me can’t do anything. I wonder why the government hasn’t helped us out at all.”

A restaurant operator in the capital told RFA that he has had no income since shutting down his eatery in May and that he has sustained himself on vegetables he grows in a garden.

“It’s been difficult having no income for such a long time,” he said. “The government should provide us some form of relief and assistance; for example, provide us with some food and financial aid or just lower taxes and the power and water bills.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Lao Services. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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