Mounting desperation in Cambodia amid COVID lockdown

Government using punitive laws to tackle surge in coronavirus cases, as the closure of markets leaves people hungry.

Villagers stand behind a lockdown barrier to ask for food donations after their village has been closed for more than two weeks inside a red zone with strict lockdown measures during the latest outbreak of COVID-19 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 30, 2021 [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Iv Sovann has been in lockdown with her family in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh since April 5 when the government imposed a raft of stringent measures to curb a sudden surge of coronavirus cases.

The 36-year-old’s family of six has no income.

Her husband, a teacher, lost his job when the school where he worked shut down a year ago.

Sovann has been keeping the family afloat by working as an accounts assistant for a local transport company.

“We are not rich. We live hand to mouth. If we were rich like others, it would be OK for us to be in quarantine for a year,” she said.

Desperate for food, this week she was among a group of people in the Phnom Penh district of Stueng Meanchey who took matters into their own hands.

“We saw some people get some food like rice noodles and canned fish, and we did not get anything. So, we went out to ask for our food,” she said.

People carry sacks of rice and other food supplies donated by the local government inside a red zone with strict lockdown measures in Phnom Penh [Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Her protest secured Iv Sovann a 25kg (55 pounds) bag of rice from the local authority but others were not so lucky.

“There are still many more families,” she said. “I don’t know why some get donations, and why some don’t.”

‘They fabricate the news’

Cambodia is grappling with its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began last year and has imposed strict lockdowns, backed by punitive fines and jail terms, in Phnom Penh and several other areas in a bid to curb the virus’s spread.

The country has reported more than 13,000 cases and more than 90 deaths in less than three months.

Authorities have designated neighbourhoods with high rates of coronavirus cases as “red zones”.

Within these districts – home to roughly 300,000 people – villagers are unable to leave their homes except for medical emergencies.

The government has promised to supply food to the areas, and blocked aid groups from entering the red zones to offer relief, but its efforts appear to have fallen short, leaving thousands desperate.

Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), says he receives hundreds of messages from its members every day asking for help. He estimates about 5,000 of the organisation’s 14,000 members across the country do not have enough to eat, especially those in “red zones”.

“[We] are lacking food,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We are appealing to the government to help assist with [food] without discrimination.”

On Friday, Amnesty International called on the government to allow civil society to deliver aid to those facing food shortages warning Cambodia was facing a crisis as a result of the government’s policies in response to the rising infections, all linked to the B.1.1.7 variant.

“The Cambodian government’s outrageous mishandling of this COVID-19 lockdown is causing untold suffering and sweeping human rights violations across the country,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said in a statement.

“Right now, residents of ‘red zones’ and others in Cambodia are going hungry because of fundamentally unreasonable policies.”

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, reacted angrily to Amnesty’s criticisms.

Amnesty “does not know Cambodia”, he said, branding those who told Al Jazeera that they did not have food “liars”.

“We help them; we study which areas they are in and what the situation they are in,” he said.

“We have checked [them]. They just fabricate the news. It’s not true.”

Questioned further, he doubled down.

“They are lying,” he said. “Tell me who doesn’t have food. Text me the [addresses] of those who don’t have food. I’ll get food to send to them right away.”

Local and international organisations have called on the government to let them into the red zones to help those in need.

“The government must urgently give access to NGOs and UN agencies who are equipped to safely provide critical medical services, food, and other essential social services in these areas,” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, Cambodia’s most prominent human rights organisation.

A police officer stands guard on a bridge in Phnom Penh. The capital is among areas of Cambodia that have been placed in lockdown amid a sudden surge in coronavirus cases [File: Mak Remissa/EPA]

Amnesty echoed the appeal.

“Everyone under lockdown must be provided access to adequate food, water, health care and other essential items,” Mishra said in the statement.

Food supplies cut

People working in construction, garment factories, on the land and in informal work have been worst affected by the lockdown measures, which have forced the closure of all markets in Phnom Penh where most common people buy their food.

Ou Virak, president of Future Forum, a think-tank dedicated to public policy issues, says the government could alleviate shortages by making existing supply chains COVID-19 safe, instead of shutting them down.

“I think the [government] should allow the existing markets to open, but make sure they are not too close to each other,” he said.

By doing so, the government would not only help people who need food, but also the farmers who are struggling to find a market for their produce.

“Shutting down the market is a very risky measure,” said Ou Virak. “Even if you have money, you can’t buy food.”

Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, rejects criticism that the government has mishandled the lockdown, saying supplies are sufficient.

“Until now, we have not heard of people who died because of starvation or because of lacking food since the government, Red Cross and generous people are actively helping people everywhere, especially those in the red zones,” he said.

Cambodia is stepping up its vaccination programme, starting with those above 18, in the country’s ‘red zones’ [Mak Remissa/EPA]

Amid the new wave of cases, the country has stepped up its vaccination programme and prioritised people living in the red zones. More than 1.3 million people in the country of 15 million have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

‘Zero tolerance’

But it has also relied on more punitive measures to curtail the spread of the virus.

In March, the government passed a new COVID-19 law that imposes a fine of as much as $5,000 and a jail term of up to 20 years for those who breach the rules. Cambodia has a monthly average income of about $550.

The United Nations has called on the government to revise the law saying it is “grossly disproportionately”.

According to Licadho, authorities have arrested 258 people under the COVID-19 law. Of these, 83 have been charged, placed in custody and taken to jail. Last month, a provincial court sentenced four people to a one-year prison term for dancing and drinking.

“A public health crisis is not the time to be sending more people to Cambodia’s overcrowded prisons,” Naly Pilorge said.

“The COVID-19 law should be repealed, and those arrested and sentenced to draconian prison terms under the law should be immediately released.

“Authorities should instead focus on organising safe vaccinations for at-risk populations, providing a social safety net for those most in need, and ensuring access to food, medicine and other necessities for the nearly 300,000 people locked in red zones across the capital.”

People wait to get tested inside a red zone with strict lockdown measures during the latest outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Phnom Penh [File: Cindy Liu/Reuters]

Sok Eysan, however, remains unmoved.

He says the government will adopt a zero-tolerance approach to people who violate the COVID-19 law, as it tries to curb the spread of the virus.

“Those who violate the principle of this [COVID] law in any article must be responsible for it before the law,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera