Living Mission – Cambodia’s struggle with COVID-19

Father Charles Dittmeier

The COVID-19 situation in Cambodia is rather fluid at the present time. The number of infections here is 107 and has been increasing slowly so far. But although the number of those testing positive is relatively small, and there have been no deaths in Cambodia, the virus situation is much a part of life here.

The basic problem is that Cambodia doesn’t have a properly functioning healthcare system. Even before COVID-19, parts of the country did not have hospitals and clinics and trained doctors, and even where there are medical facilities they may be untended because the staff don’t show up because of low salaries.

In mid March the government started to respond to the threat of the coronavirus’ spreading here as it has in other parts of the world. Schools were closed, then the churches, mosques, and pagodas, then the tourist sites and museums, and finally the beer gardens. The garment factories and everything else are still allowed to open, though, while the government seems uncertain about what to do next.

A number of the locals are taking matters into their own hands. Many families have taken their children out of the city to the relative isolation of their small ancestral villages in the provinces where they hope the virus will not reach.

Our Deaf Development Programme sent all our deaf students and trainees home, and our staff are working from home. Several of us go to the office to check on three young men with multiple disabilities — one is deaf-blind — who have to stay with us in our hostel because they have no families or anyplace else to go.

A number of the foreigners working here left the country before the borders were closed. Many were teachers, and when the schools closed, they got their families on a plane and went to their home countries.

At present, COVID-19 may be most experienced in its emotional effects. People are anxious, worried about the future, frightened. That is true in other countries also but here there are so few resources to help people cope. The local people know the gaps and weaknesses in healthcare here and the ineptitude of the government, and so they flee to remote villages or hunker down in their closed shops.

Others like the Pakistani refugees who have come to Cambodia fleeing religious persecution are hurting also.

Some found menial jobs but now those jobs are disappearing as schools and shops close, and the refugees are turning to our English Catholic community for help.

Also many expatriates from other countries are here alone, away from their families and all their support systems, and they too through the years have found in the church a place of safety and support. Now, though, we cannot meet as the People of God and so we don’t have the weekly collections to support the refugees nor the gatherings to provide companionship to the others.

There is also now a pervading fear of foreigners because the virus was initially identified as a foreigner disease, since it came from outsiders. I never wore face masks in the past except when on a motorcycle on dusty roads. Now I wear a mask when I go out. The microbiologists working with us tell us the masks don’t help medically, but they give reassurance to the local people who think they are being protected from us.

Cambodia’s situation with COVID-19 is not the worst in the world but it will almost certainly get much worse in the weeks to come. For now we just take it day by day.

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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