Living Mission —
A prolonged emergency in Cambodia

Father Charles Dittmeier

A year ago the COVID-19 situation in the United States was becoming more and more dire. Infections were spreading geographically and increasing numerically. At the same time, the situation in Cambodia was rather hopeful with only a handful of infections, all from arriving air passengers.

A year later, the situation is reversed. In the United States, many are vaccinated and churches, schools and businesses are reopening. But in Cambodia our infections have increased over the last three months from 375 individuals to more than 60,000; schools, churches, and other sites have been closed for most of the last year. Phnom Penh has experienced travel restrictions and a lockdown.

The recent two-week lockdown was particularly burdensome because in the designated “red zones,” people were not allowed even to leave their homes for food but had to depend on inadequate government food deliveries.

The Catholic Church provided food relief — rice, vegetables and pork — and also personnel and vehicles for delivering food to remote areas.

At the end of the lockdown, surging numbers of new infections resulted in thousands of people being quarantined in makeshift centers set up in empty schools without proper kitchens, toilets, bedding, water and electricity. The church then shifted its focus from feeding remote villages to feeding the quarantined multitudes.

Two weeks ago, Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler celebrated this year’s pandemic-postponed Chrism Mass with 15 representative priests from the diocese. Preceding Mass, the priests were asked to report on conditions in their rural parishes and told of various problems caused by travel restrictions, business closures and distribution of food.

Our English Catholic Community, the foreigners in Cambodia, have some of the same problems but also some very different ones. Like the local Cambodians, they had trouble getting food, but while the local people were hungry at home and on their own small pieces of land, the foreigners were losing their living places.

Many foreigners here are teachers but the schools were closed along with the businesses, and many of the English-speaking community no longer have an income.

As their savings were depleted — if they had any — more and more people started coming to the church for help. Many lost the rooms they were renting. Some were actually living on the street or in abandoned buildings. Many had no food. They could not afford a doctor.

Those were the immediate basic needs. But then their visas, work permits and passports started expiring and they could not keep up their legal status. And without a current visa, they cannot be re-employed when the schools and other businesses reopen. They also become subject to a $10 a day penalty once the visa expires. Many would return to their home countries, but they have no money for a ticket or to pay the overstay penalties.

Our parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society has tried to respond but we have been overwhelmed by the numbers of people needing aid. There aren’t social service agencies for various needs as found in the U.S., and so our phone number — as a group that is trying to help — gets passed around from one suffering family to another. And the situation is made worse because our community cannot meet for Mass because of COVID-19, and so while requests for help are increasing, our income is almost non-existent.

COVID-19 has created a prolonged emergency in Cambodia that is intensifying and will be with us for a long time.

Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish.

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