Since early May, an average of five to 10 Cambodian people have died from Covid-19 a day with many others testing positive amid the ongoing community outbreak. At the same time, however, hundreds of patients also recovered a day.
The first Covid-19 case in Cambodia was detected in January 2020 in a foreign passenger who has returned to his homeland in February 2020 after recovering. Then, the Ministry of Health decided to set up a special task force made up of members from several institutions. The task force was tasked with inspecting, managing and strengthening Covid-19 response mechanisms in the country.
With high commitment, the task force largely brought the pandemic under control before and after the first and second community outbreaks in late 2020. It has taken tough and urgent Covid-19 preventive measures. However, the third wave dubbed by the government as the “February 20 community event” set a historic record, leading to the lockdown of Phnom Penh and a few provinces and paralysing Cambodia’s economy for a short period.
But thanks to efforts by Prime Minister Hun Sen and top leaders of relevant ministries and institutions, Cambodia has largely managed to bring the situation under control. The people have been allowed to freely travel and go about their businesses.
Measures taken before community outbreak
In early March of 2020, the government decided to set up a national committee to combat Covid-19 with Prime Minister Hun Sen as chairman along with five deputies and other members. The committee comprised leaders of ministries and institutions and municipal and provincial governors as members.
The committee was tasked with determining national policies and strategies to combat Covid-19, implement plans to prevent, stop and manage Covid-19 and mitigate political and socio-economic impacts.
Chiv Sokhour, a Cambodian student who received a scholarship to study in Thailand and returned to Cambodia in March 2020, told The Post that upon his return, the Covid-19 situation was not concerning.
He said a quarantine was not mandatory, though he decided to isolate himself for two weeks.
“Quarantine was not obligatory during that time; however, as a responsible person, I chose to stay home all by myself for two weeks,” he said.
Sokhour said when he arrived at the airport, the whole process after landing was quick. There was a team handing some sort of a health declaration form for him and other passengers to fill in, and they did not ask any questions.
“There were not any officials asking us where we will quarantine or anything. So basically, quarantine wasn’t an actual thing for incoming passengers in early 2020,” he said, adding that prior to departure, both Cambodian and foreigners were not required to obtain any additional documents or preparation.
However, it is now more stringent at the airport.
“Personally, yes. It was way more convenient than it is nowadays,” Sokhour emphasised.
Phoung Malie Pheng, who visited Cambodia in October 2020, shared her personal experience on her YouTube channel about travelling from the US. She said that if passengers did not test for Covid-19 within 72 hours before boarding a plane, the airline will not allow them to travel. What is more important, she noted, is that the test results must bear a doctor’s signature for verification.
“When we arrived in Cambodia, we need to have an address and contact numbers of people with whom we will stay while in the country because the Ministry of Health would need to contact us when a case arises,” she said.
Upon arrival at Phnom Penh International Airport, she said passengers have to undergo another test. And there were two options for quarantine – one prepared by the authorities free of charge and the other at a hotel at personal expenses.
“I can say I was lucky that I visited Cambodia without restrictions and with only two days of quarantine if no airline passenger tested positive for Covid-19. After a short while, the two days of quarantine multiplied to 14 days whether a fellow airline passenger tested for Covid-19 or not,” she said.
Going through three community outbreaks
November 3, 2020 brought a surprise event following a visit by Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto, who was positive for Covid-19 after leaving Cambodia for Thailand.
It was dubbed the “November 3 community event” by Prime Minister Hun Sen so that it was etched in everyone’s memory. A total of 1,802 people were found to have been directly and indirectly exposed to Covid-19. Of the number, four people tested positive for Covid-19 and the event was linked to 11 provinces.
This first community outbreak was brought to a successful end on November 25, 2020.
However, that was short-lived. November 28 brought another shock known as the second wave of Covid-19 transmission in Cambodia. Back then, the wife of Chhem Savuth – head of the General Department of Prisons – tested positive for Covid-19. The source of infection could not be clearly determined as she had nothing to do with the November 3 event.
Dubbed the “November 28 community event”, it saw 41 Covid-19 cases recorded. However, the government again brought the event under control with no new positive cases detected.
In the whole of 2020, Cambodia recorded a total of 378 Covid-19 cases with no fatality.
After the second wave passed, however, a third wave of transmission occurred. Dubbed the “February 20 community event”, it has seen over 40,000 positive cases and more than 400 deaths. With new cases and fatalities logged every day up until June 20, it remains to be seen when the event will end.
Quarantine practices for inbound passengers
In a bid to contain the pandemic, health minister Mam Bun Heng issued a directive detailing health measures and quarantine guidelines for foreigners arriving in Cambodia. The directive took effect on December 12, 2020 with the approval of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“All passengers arriving in Cambodia must quarantine for 14 days after Covid-19 testing in Cambodia. All passengers are required to obtain a certificate indicating that they have tested negative for Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure from their country of origin,” stated the directive.
According to the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases signed on March 12 this year, Cambodians and foreigners arriving in Cambodia and individuals who have been in close and indirect contact with Covid-19 positive people or with those suspected of carrying Covid-19 must make a health declaration. They have to fill in the form announcing their health condition determined by the relevant authorities and provide other necessary information to health officials or other specialists.
What local and international passengers must do amid the February 20 community outbreak?
Ngin Lyda – head of e-commerce sale agent for a private company in Cambodia who travelled from the US in May – told The Post that she had undergone three tests. She received the first test before boarding a plane within 72 hours of departure. She received the second test while in transit and the third test when she arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport.
“The results of my three tests came back negative and I was vaccinated fully twice in the US. But I still had to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in our country,” she said.
“I chose to quarantine at a hotel. During that period, I had to spend more than $1,000 for accommodation and food. The room cost $60 and food cost $10 per meal. So, in a day I had to spend $90 for the services. Luckily, guests could order food from outside,” she said.
“I had to stay in the room alone. I could not leave the room and no one could enter either, even a cleaner. I had to do a second test while in quarantine and there was no rapid test. I had my specimens collected for testing at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge. So, I had to spend 24 to 46 hours because there were a lot of people,” Lyda added.
According to the ministry’s directive, foreign travellers who are investors, businesspeople, company staff, experts, skilled workers, technicians and family members without being either sponsored or invited had to show valid visas issued by Cambodian embassies or consulates in their home countries. They had to show a health certificate issued by relevant authorities and recognised by the governments of their countries proving that they had no Covid-19 within 72 hours of departure. They had to show invitation and health insurance letters and hotel booking receipts.
“Foreign travellers are required to deposit $2,000. The deposit covers the costs of accommodation while awaiting Covid-19 testing, transport from the airport to the hotel and expenses during the quarantine in case a passenger tests positive for Covid-19,” said the directive.
Cambodian passengers are not required to place a deposit.
The ministry also stated that foreign travellers who are investors, businesspeople, company staff, experts, skilled workers, technicians and family members without being either sponsored or invited also have to deposit $2,000. They have to buy health insurance for Covid-19 treatment for $90 with an insurance period of 20 days.
A Malaysian businessman who asked to remain anonymous told The Post recently that he had visited Cambodia more than 10 times now over the last 10 years, the most recent of which was in February this year.
He said he arrived at the airport on February 19 and went straight from airport to the hotel for quarantine and stayed there for 14 days.
“I was on a business visit as I have a consulting company set up in Cambodia and ongoing projects. Plus I had some banking to do with the ABA Bank. I left Phnom Penh on the April 3 this year so all in all I was in Phnom Penh for 44 days [with 30 days outside of quarantine],” he said.
During the pandemic, the Cambodian government required foreigners to make a deposit upon arrival, and the Malaysian businessman deposited $2,000 when he arrived at the airport.
“When my quarantine was finished, I got some money back because most of it was taken up by the hotel stay and we had to pay for an additional half day because the Covid-19 test results came back late from the health ministry’s lab,” he said.
Having gained the experience, the businessman recommended that travellers bring cash because not all debit/credit cards work. Both of his debit cards did not work when he withdrew cash from ATMs at the airport.
“We were not allowed to choose a hotel of our choice. For transportation – we were all crammed into a bus and taken to the designated hotel and despite all social distancing everywhere else, there was a potential cluster,” he noted.
“At the hotel, the checking-in process was also not orderly because the entire busload was at the small lobby. And with additional hotel staffers all over, a cluster was possible. I only felt safe when I was inside my room. The room was spacious and physically good for me to do my work and sleep.”
He said food, which was served three times a day, was mostly bland and tasteless. He was charged $30 per day for food and $55 a day for room.
“For $30, you can get decent food in any decent restaurant in Phnom Penh. During quarantine, we were not allowed to get food, drinks or even dry materials [such as books] from outsiders even if they just left it at the lobby downstairs,” he said.
“We were forced to buy only food and drinks from the hotel. For a beer drinker like me, this was an expensive affair as I had to pay hotel rates for beers and that was $3.50 per small bottle.”
He added that every day at 3pm, he and others would go to the rooftop to get temperatures checked. But even there, there were guests who got into groups with no social distancing.
The Phnom Penh Quarantine Centre, located in Phsar Lech village in Prek Pnov district’s Prek Pnov commune, was officially inaugurated on January 6.
The centre has four buildings, each of which can accommodate 126 people. In total, the four buildings have 504 rooms with 504 beds for 504 people. The buildings are equipped with fans, bathrooms, toilets and many other arrangements that provide convenience for people in quarantine.
Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng said the quarantine centre was set up to accommodate inbound passengers entering Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport.
Passengers are divided into two categories – those who are better off could chose to quarantine at a guesthouse or hotel.
“If passengers cannot afford it, they can quarantine at the centre [in Prek Pnov], which does not require a fee and even provided three times meals per day. Specimen collection for Covid-19 testing is also free of charge,” he said.
An employee of Sokha Hotel, which accepts passengers for quarantine, told The Post on condition of anonymity that the number of people staying there was not as high as before due to the low number of foreign tourists during the ongoing community outbreak.
“For all guests, the cost of accommodation and food is the same – $75 per person for room and $10 for each meal. Some guests chose to have two or three types of meals per day, so they have to spend a lot,” he said.
The employee said he could not distinguish which guests were businessmen, tourists or investors.
“No guests are required to leave before the quarantine period ends because they know in advance the [mandatory] duration for quarantine. We do not force guests to stay at our place, it’s their choice,” he said.
According to the Sokha Hotel employee, guests who come for quarantine at the hotel are not required to register with other guests to avoid disturbing each other. And they are not allowed to leave their room for a stroll in the hotel premises.
“They have to stay in the room for 14 days. If they leave, they will be fined $500. They can only leave with permission. We have tight security and guards to prevent anyone leaving quarantine,” he said.
In the provinces along the Cambodian-Thai border, all Cambodian or foreign workers or citizens entering Cambodia must undergo a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. This was enforced in the wake of the community outbreak of Covid-19 in a Thai border province, where hundreds of Cambodian workers fled and returned to their home country.
After the influx of returning Cambodian workers eased, Prime Minister Hun Sen instructed the authorities to transport workers to their hometown for quarantine at a location nearest to their home.
Run Sarith, a worker who returned from Thailand in December 2020, said that during his 14-day quarantine at a centre in Battambang province, he was bored but was obligated to complete it.
“Bored is bored but we have to follow what is required. If I don’t do it, I will still need to undergo 14-day quarantine when I arrive at my village because otherwise the local authorities and villagers take action against us for fear of contracting the virus from me,” he said.
Sarith said that during his quarantine period, he always explained to the young people not to run away because even if they arrive home, they won’t be able to escape anyway.
He noted that he was staying in a school dormitory – which was set up as a temporary accommodation – with his wife and other workers who had travelled together.
“Staying together, I was also worried that someone carrying this disease could transmit it to us. But most of us are family, knowing each other and have travelled in the same car, so they put us in the dormitory,” he said.
Sarith said all workers who stayed together always take precaution by wearing a mask at all times, even while sleeping.
“It is difficult, but if we don’t do that, I can get the disease from someone else. Or in case I have the disease, I can prevent it from spreading to others. Compared to the work I do in Thailand as a construction worker, just staying in quarantine is not very difficult. I just got bored because we could not go out,” he said.
Protection and restrictions by ministries and authorities
Sin Chanserivutha, spokesman for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), told The Post that public health issues were under the direction of the National committee to Combat Covid-19, which is led by the prime minister directly.
The SSCA is a member tasked with implementing policies, guidelines and other measures, he said.
Quarantine is in accordance with the joint declaration and other measures issued by the health ministry. It is the responsibility of every citizen to protect themselves from Covid-19, he added.
“What can we do about them? They have to meet our requirements, such as presenting a health certificate and proving that they have enough money to cover the costs of quarantine – accommodation and other services which are to be paid after the period,” he said.
Chanserivutha said passengers can book accommodation at hotels that are partners of the health ministry, which can cost between $30 to more than $100. And if they do not make a reservation in advance, they will have it arranged for them accordingly.
“If they can afford, they will be transported to a good place to stay. If they don’t have enough money, they will be transported to a normal place. But it also depends on the place. If the accommodation is affordable, everyone will be transported to the right place, depending on the actual situation,” he said.
According to the official, those who do not have the resources, such as students or the poor, can inform the committee responsible for the quarantine who will transport them to the place that does not require payment.
Regarding measures introduced by the government or relevant institutions, he said: “We accept that the introduction of measures as well as border closures depends on the risks that occur in that region or country. We have experienced cross-border closures from province to province and blockade across the country due to the alarming outbreak, which requires urgent action to protect public health. Every country does this depending on the risks – low, moderate, high,” he said.
Chanserivutha added that the practice is based on the actual situation. At first, Cambodia did not require 14-day quarantine, but only two days. But after outbreak, it required 14 days of quarantine.
“The government’s decision is to prevent transmission and protect public health. So it is a measure that we must all respect. What worries us is lockdown, which affects the lives of our people,” he said.
“Therefore, the 14-day quarantine is normal, a measure that we can accept as appropriate and reliable, which allows us to prevent the spread of the infectious diseases. But we cannot tell beforehand what will change in the future. It depends on the risk and the number of infections,” he said.
Or Vandine, health ministry spokeswoman and chairwoman of the Ad-hoc Commission for Covid-19 Vaccination Programme, said those who travel from abroad, whether Cambodians or foreigners, and even those who have been fully vaccinated are still required to undergo 14-day quarantine.
“We have not yet changed the procedure for quarantine for travellers to Cambodia. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out the same tests and quarantine as others,” she said.