Cambodia recorded its fourth COVID-19 death Monday as the country ordered the closure of schools and entertainment venues amid an intensifying outbreak of the coronavirus that causes the disease more than a year after it was labeled a global pandemic.
According to the Ministry of Health, 75-year-old retired doctor Sderng Chea was admitted to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday with a severe lung infection and died a day later from complications related to COVID-19. Sderng Chea had served as the chairman of the Medical and Sports Science Committee of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.
RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to reach Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine for comment on the country’s fourth COVID-19 death, but she told local media that before his arrival at the hospital, Sderng Chea was in “critical condition.”
Speaking to Bayon TV, Or Vandine said that the spread of the coronavirus is “on the rise” in Cambodia, affecting both children and the elderly, and suggested that a “vicious new mutation” is making it more difficult for medical professionals to treat the infected.
She warned the public not to doubt the seriousness of the virus or to assume it is a hoax.
“Some people say they don’t believe it is a real virus or a pandemic, and claim it is an organized scam,” she said.
“Let me ask you, how can you organize and fabricate the number of dead? We must realize this is the life of a person, not a joke, but some people are falling victim to fake propaganda.”
So far, seven people have died while being treated for COVID-19, but the Ministry of Health only acknowledges that four people—including Sderng Chea—have died of the disease. The ministry claims that the other three deaths were caused by heart disease and severe pneumonia.
Cambodia marked its first official death from COVID-19 on March 11, a year to the day that the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the coronavirus a global pandemic.
While the country has remained relatively unscathed by the virus, it reported a daily record last week of 105 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the country’s total number of infections to 1,430—nearly triple that of a month ago when the latest outbreak was first detected. By Monday, the number of infections had climbed to 1,753.
Despite the month-long outbreak, it was only on March 20 that Cambodia’s government issued an order closing the country’s schools and entertainment venues—including cinemas, theaters, and museums. However, factories—which have recorded an increase of cases among staff—remain open with workers commuting crammed together in the backs of trucks daily.
Social development analyst Seng Sary told RFA that the public has become more vigilant as the death toll has increased. But he urged the government to work harder to prevent the spread of the virus, saying it is imperative for both authorities and the public to cooperate.
“There are still some citizens who neglect the safety rules and hold small gatherings,” he said.
“But mostly, we have started to see people become more cautious … after seeing four people die. I hope we all take more caution.”
Call for plan on outbreak, economy
Also on Monday, Cambodia’s lesser-known opposition Grassroot Democratic Party (GDP) called on the government to devise specific plans to address the recent outbreak and the national economy, which has suffered during the pandemic, particularly due to rising unemployment.
The party, which lacks a seat in the National Assembly, urged the government in a statement to respond in a timely manner, including by establishing a commission to study key issues, such as targeted assistance, the informal economy, the return of migrant workers from abroad, and how much of the national budget should be allocated to helping to support the livelihood of the people and facilitate debt repayment.
In addition, the GDP called for a commission to study farming production that can help the economy rebound and create local jobs, as well as how the business community can assist in a national recovery after the threat of the coronavirus is over.
GDP founder Yang Saing Koma told RFA that the government’s current measures are insufficient and called for a “clear, master plan” that promotes contributions from all parties and development partners.
“This is not about the Grassroot Democratic Party, it’s about the whole nation and its need to respond to the current problems—especially how we can quickly recover our economy and tourism sector after the crisis.”
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan called the GDP’s statement a “political ploy,” adding that the government already has control of the situation. He noted that the government has set up quarantine centers, as well as provided food and additional funding to the public.
“Those who have political motives against the government were chosen to be interviewed, such as motorbike taxi drivers, and then their interviews were broadcast on Radio Free Asia,” he said. “Therefore, the problem seems unsolvable.”
“I follow RFA closely. I’m on top of the situation and I regularly compare between the news broadcasts and the reality in Cambodia.”
Sok Eysan did not elaborate on how the two situations differ.
The World Bank recently warned that, because of the pandemic, poverty in 2020 could increase among households involved in key sectors like tourism, construction, trade, manufacturing and the garment industry.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.