Prime Minister Hun Sen complained of a stuffy nose on Monday and said he’ll get tested for the coronavirus, two days after authorities reported the first confirmed case in a Cambodian national.
Nevertheless, Hun Sen lashed out at people for spreading virus-related rumors about him. He urged people not to give into fear and to trust the nation’s health care system.
To date, the main impact of the virus in Cambodia has been economic, as scores of factories dependent on supplies from China have been forced to suspend operations.
That may be starting to change. On Saturday, the government reported that a 38-year-old Cambodian man in Siem Reap had contracted COVID-19 after direct contact with a Japanese man who tested positive for coronavirus after transiting in Vietnam and returning to Japan.
While presiding over a ceremony to open the recently completed National Road 55 in Pursat province, Hun Sen said that he should probably seek medical treatment.
“I think once I return from these events, I'll go ask my doctor to take my sample to get tested because I feel like I’ve got a stuffy nose,” said Hun Sen.
Civil society organizations were critical of the prime minister, saying that it was wrong for him to attend events and risk transmission of the virus to crowds of people.
The prime minister also warned the public not to spread virus-related rumors about him, specifically calling out someone he suspected of doing just that.
“I want to convey my message to a guy in Kampong Trabek district, in Prey Veng province. That guy said I was secretly being transferred to a hospital in Singapore. Check yourself!” said Hun Sen.
“I may order authorities to arrest you in your house. Don’t ever think that we don’t know what you’re doing! This is just a warning! But in the future, if you dare say that again, I will arrest and detain you,” he added.
He refuted the rumor, saying that if any Cambodian, including himself were to become infected, they would likely not be admitted to neighboring countries like Vietnam, Thailand or Singapore for treatment.
Hun Sen also called on the public not to give in to fear and to trust Cambodia’s healthcare system.
The prime minister also confirmed that the relevant ministries have yet to conduct tests for all people who were in contact with the infected Japanese man and the Cambodian man who tested positive Saturday. He suggested that citizens who suspect they might be infected should cooperate with the Ministry of Health to get tested for the virus in a timely manner and to prevent the possible spread of the virus.
The prime minister also reacted strongly to the Vietnam News Agency (VNA), which recently reported that Vietnam is restricting travelers from Cambodia to prevent the spread of the disease. Vietnamese authorities were the first to report that the Japanese patient had been in Cambodia.
He said VNA was issuing misleading reports by suggesting that Cambodia is a high-risk location and demanded it remove the report, saying he would file a diplomatic complaint with the Vietnamese government if VNA refused to comply.
“Why did you say my country is a risk for Vietnam?” he asked.
“This would have become a huge problem for the Cambodian people, who might want to block Vietnamese from crossing into our borders,” he added.
Hun Sen was seen at the event shaking hands with the public.
Moeun Tola, the executive director for the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen should have avoided the public.
“The role of a state is to protect and promote the well-being of its people,” he said.
He added that authorities must continue to investigate and identify all those who came in contact with the two confirmed COVID-19 cases.
“What Cambodia should do is to find mechanism to prevent the spread of the disease. Once Cambodia's prevention system is strong, there will be more public confidence,” Moeun Tola said.
As of Monday afternoon, the Ministry of Health has only confirmed the status of one of the four people known to have had contact with the Japanese patient. The three others are under 14-day quarantine.
The confirmed patient has been isolated and is undergoing treatment by doctors in Siem Reap. Three of his family members are also in quarantine.
The man’s wife and several close relatives were tested and the results were negative.
The government has temporarily shut down all 110 educational institutions in Siem Reap until further notice, and canceled a mid-April Khmer New Year celebration.
COVID-19 causes economic hardship
After opening the new high way, Hun Sen ordered government officials to develop a safety net for workers who have lost income due to the coronavirus crisis and the impact of the country’s loss of preferential trade status with the European Union through its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
The prime minister appealed to both the state and private sector to assist those who have been suspended from work, estimating that their numbers were less than 20,000.
He asked factory workers not to use workers’ suspensions as an excuse to cancel their contracts, and called on banks and microfinance firms to allow a delayed repayment of loans or interest payments until the affected people could return to their jobs.
He also asked utility companies to allow a grace period for unpaid bills.
"Their payments may be deferred. Likewise, if [workers] are required to pay monthly interest, it should be exempted during their period of suspension,” said Hun Sen.
The prime minister lauded Cambodia’s relationship with China, pointing out that seven Chinese ships were sent with raw materials to Cambodia to prevent disruptions in the supply chain.
"Today begins the first transport segment and tomorrow the second. According to Chinese news, these seven ships will transport [raw materials] not just for a period of three months, but until May when the situation [should be] getting better," he said.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, told RFA that if these raw materials could reach Cambodia as Hun Sen announced, the problem of supply chain disruption at factories would be solved to some extent.
“According to the ministry's estimate, there are about 200 factories and about 160,000 workers [affected]. Yet, now we have just entered the first week of March,” said Rong Chhun
“So the Prime Minister's assessment to date is not wrong, but over the next half-month we don't know how many more factories will request for suspension of their operations,” Rong Chhun added.
Regarding Hun Sen’s proposed workers’ relief measures, Mr. Rong Chhun said it would be better if the government could do this more effectively.
"The issue of bank loans are a necessity. If the government plans to solve this problem, then we just want the government’s solution to be effective," said Rong Chhun.
The Association of Banks in Cambodia (ABC) and the Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA) issued a joint statement Monday in support of proposed measures to minimize the negative impact of COVID-19 on the financial sector.
The ABC and RMA suggested that banks and financial institutions continue to provide loans, exercise flexibility in loan repayment issues, and to take necessary precautions to protect bank employees and customers.
Facebooker arrested for COVID-19 posts
Meanwhile, Phnom Penh authorities Monday arrested a Facebook user for posting ‘inciting’ comments on COVID-19.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner Sar Thet told RFA that authorities arrested Koy Sam Ath for “polluting society” by posting a video clip on Facebook about the virus.
The suspect will be taken to court on charges of inciting to commit felonies.
“We arrested him because he stirred up fears about the coronavirus. We received an order from the prosecutor,” said the commissioner.
“We interrogated him and he confessed that he posted the live video clip of himself,” he added.
In the video clip, Koy Sam Ath thanked the Vietnamese government for discovering that case the Japanese patient who tested positive for COVID-19 had been to Cambodia.
“We all should thank the Vietnamese. Until the Vietnamese announced that [the Japanese man flying from Cambodia] was found with COVID-19 that we had no idea that COVID-19 was here in Cambodia,” said Koy Sam Ath in the video clip.
“It is fortunate that Vietnam announced this news. If that news was reported by our own citizens, we’d get arrested,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Eugene Whong.