COVID-19 & CAMBODIA

The last registered new case of Covid-19 was identified 4 weeks ago in Cambodia. In fact, from a total of 122 positive cases recorded in total all but 2 have recovered. And zero fatalities which is remarkable in a country with a basic level of healthcare. So, does this mean all is well and Cambodia has been doing a great job? ‘Yes and no’ is a good answer here…

As Covid-19 cases increased worldwide it wasn’t until 27th January when the first case was identified in Cambodia. That is quite remarkable as flights to and from China were, and still are flying today. The number has reduced to just a handful currently compared to 25 a day earlier in the year. In fact, the Cambodian government did not stop flights from Wuhan, the suspension actually was done by the Chinese. The coastal town of Sihanoukville has a huge Chinese population and there are also significant numbers in Phnom Penh and lesser numbers in other areas.

It can be argued that the low number of positive cases was due to a lack of testing. Cambodia only tests where there has been direct contact with positive cases and is displaying symptoms of coronavirus. Though this is the case in many Western countries also. Facilities are admittedly limited in Cambodia. So far about 13,000 tests have been done which roughly equates to 800 people in every million Cambodian citizens. Though the test data is probably eschewed as some patients have been tested more than once. This test figure is comparative to many other Asian countries.   

The three largest outbreaks were recorded from passengers on board a Viking River Cruise, a French tour group in Sihanoukville, and from Cham Muslim returning from a religious gathering in Malaysia. As mentioned all but 2 of the infected cases have left hospital and have returned home. 51 of the 122 cases were Cambodian, then 39 French, 13 Malaysians, 5 British, just 3 Chinese and, 3 Vietnamese, 2 each from US, Indonesia and Canada and one single case from Belgian, Sweden and the Congo.

Cambodian government, ‘Stay Safe’ poster.

As the first cases were identified a few people muttered about possible cover ups and unannounced fatalities. We can put this to bed now as many weeks have passed, there is no talk of numbers being ‘massaged’ on social media (which there most definitely would be by now!) and also there are no increases in deaths out of the hospitals or in the villages. We live in Cambodia and pass hospitals on a daily basis and are aware of local news stories, and there has definitely been nothing different to normal. Cambodia also has very similar figures to Vietnam and Laos in relation to positive cases and no fatalities.   

There has been discussion on why the numbers are astonishingly low compared to other countries. The spread of Covid-19 has been evident in the cooler European climate and also developed in Wuhan from December (or earlier), a cool time. However, the World Health Organisation does advise, ‘from the evidence so far, the Covid-19 virus can be transmitted in ALL AREAS, including areas with hot and humid weather’. Data to prove arguments either way will take several seasons to record so we are keeping our fingers crossed the natural heat of Cambodia is helping to slow the spread. It’s reached 37-39 Celsius most days at the moment…

Cambodia also has a youthful population. Approximately 65% of Cambodia’s people are aged under 30 years. Therefore the most susceptible age ranges to serious infection or death is a relatively low number of people.

Population density is believed also key to spreading of Covid-19. The largest city is Phnom Penh which has about 2.1 million inhabitants with a population density of 3,136 people per square kilometre. Compare this to New York City (10947/km²) and Greater London (4542/km²), two of the most affected cities. However, both of those have extensive public transport networks where close contact cannot be avoided. Phnom Penh has just a few city buses which never seem to be packed. Most Cambodians use motorbikes or cars to get to and from their workplace, school etc.

Many cities have very closed environments with air con offices and shopping malls. Whilst Phnom Penh’s middle class do love the air-con, the majority of people live and work in the fresh, circulating air. And outside of Phnom Penh the other large cities of Sihanoukville, Kampong Cham, Battambang and Siem Reap have populations of only 100,000-200,000. As seen, Cambodia is still an agricultural country and there is only one large city. Whilst Thailand has seen 55 Covid-19 fatalities many of these from Bangkok with a population of 8 million and with extensive public transport and more than 100 shopping malls compared to a handful in Phnom Penh.    

Just before Khmer New Year in mid-April, approximately 100,000 migrant workers crossed back from Thailand to Cambodia and headed to their villages. Tests were made on people with symptoms but all cases came back negative. And around the same time approximately 30,000 garment factory workers avoided a travel ban to return to their hometowns. Again, no positive cases…

So has Cambodia been lucky? It could be said that inadvertently the ‘Swedish model’ was used with few restrictions and only general advice provided for hygiene and safety. The only travel restriction deployed was to ban inter-provincial travel during Khmer New Year. Or is there still time for the virus to take hold? After all Singapore’s surge in numbers came from migrant workers who live and work in very close areas.

Cambodian authorities are still urging caution. It is very difficult for foreigners to enter Cambodia currently as visas are required in advance, along with proof of a Covid-19 negative test and insurance cover in case of infection. Besides one weekly Korean Air flight the only other flights are from China. Though infections that broke off from the main clusters cannot be ruled out.

The Covid-19 saga will run for a lot longer so fingers crossed the heat of Cambodia does the magic as it’s year-round…

Hot Cambodian sun

Covid-19 photo care of https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/background

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