Living Mission — Cambodia’s experience with COVID-19

Father Charles Dittmeier

The central notion of a pandemic is that a disease affects all or most nations around the world. Individual countries can be affected in different ways, though, and Cambodia is a case in point. While the United States has experienced the most COVID-19 infections and the most deaths from the coronavirus, Cambodia has been relatively unscathed.

As of Sept.3, 2020, Cambodia has only had 274 coronavirus infections since March and there have been no deaths resulting from the disease. No one is quite sure why we have been so spared.

Most of the infections in Cambodia have been brought in from outside (causing a fear of us foreigners), initially by tourists (before the borders were closed) and now by Cambodians returning home from other countries. There has been minimal community transmission.

As the world became aware of COVID-19 and Cambodia got its first infections, the government in mid-March first closed schools and then gyms, spas, tourist attractions, beer gardens, casinos and the churches. The garment factories — a very large part of Cambodia’s economy — remained open as did restaurants, although many of the latter switched to carryout service only.

People were encouraged to wear masks, wash their hands, stay at home and avoid large gatherings, and initially the populace responded and the streets became noticeably quiet.

But subsequently as Cambodia went weeks without new infections, compliance with the basic health precautions waned. Today very few people wear masks and life is basically back to normal. That does not bode well for the future, if community transmission does become established, because people now have learned that they “deal with” the coronavirus by doing nothing and it will be hard to convince them to return to strict precautionary measures.

One positive precautionary measure the government has established is a strict health check for the few arriving plane passengers, and that seems to be working well. An interesting twist to it is that each arrival must make a deposit of $2,000 upon landing to cover the cost of an initial virus test, an overnight stay waiting for results and then either hospital treatment or a two-week quarantine if anyone on the plane is positive, and then a second test. Ominously the deposit also covers the cost of cremation if the passenger should die here.

Probably everyone in most countries has been affected by COVID-19. Here, our annual retreat for all Cambodian priests was canceled, and then a later attempt to gather just the Phnom Penh priests did not happen partly because hotels were fearful of accommodating so many foreigners.

Some of the difficulties experienced here may be different from what has been experienced in the U.S. I missed my physical exam in Bangkok because the borders are closed. It is very difficult to get hearing aid batteries for the same reason. Two UPS deliveries of personal protective equipment took several weeks to arrive because there are so few flights to the kingdom. All international mail was halted.

One positive development, though, is a bi-monthly Zoom call that my brothers and sisters have set up to keep us in touch with each other because I won’t be home for a year or two.

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

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