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Public trust in gov’t essential to successful Covid-19 prevention

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A teacher gets vaccinated against Covid-19 as a foreigner looks on at a high school in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, known as ‘a small country having big heart,’ also allows foreigners to get vaccinated against the disease for free. Hean Rangsey

Public trust in gov’t essential to successful Covid-19 prevention

COVID-19, a deadly contagious disease, is testing people’s trust in the loyalty and resilience of the government.

For more than a year since its outbreak in China and around the world, the Cambodian government has been highly vigilant and striving to establish and strictly implement health and administrative measures aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus into the community and mitigating its socio-economic impacts.

Through the year 2020, when many countries around the world grappled with the pandemic with a large number of infections and deaths, Cambodia luckily had only a small number of imported cases with no death. There was neither curfew nor serious administrative measures apart from the closures of some schools, resorts, sport and entertainment venues, and nightclubs in Phnom Penh – due to a short-lived community outbreak in November – which were then lifted.

Cambodia has been highly praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international institutions for its effective control and prevention of Covid-19 while its Asian neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines are still reeling from its impact.

It was great pride for Cambodian leaders and officials at all levels who had successfully provided security and safety to their compatriots. However, that did not last long with the government having to grapple with the resurgence of a large-scale community outbreak on February 20 of this year.

Negligence in quarantine control at a hotel in Phnom Penh has led to the rapid spread of the virus in the capital and to some provinces. As of April 8, the Ministry of Health had recorded 2,496 transmission cases linked to the February 20 outbreak with 1,393 recoveries.

And since the pandemic began, the country has logged more than 20 deaths with over one thousand patients remaining hospitalised. The number of infections is likely to rise in the coming days.

The situation has prompted the government to take a series of strict measures. They include urgently adopting related law and regulations, accelerating and expanding vaccination drive, issuing specific preventive measure such as the “three protections and three don’ts”, and most recently imposing inter-provincial travel and curfew.

The community outbreak of Covid-19 has caused severe damage to the wellbeing of people throughout the country and also put their lives at risk. It has compelled the government to use huge funds, human and other resources in a bid to contain the pandemic and treat infected patients.

Now one may wonder if the government, particularly health officials and local authorities, are resilient enough to manage such a precarious, critical situation.

It is evident that putting an end to the February 20 community outbreak would be a daunting task for the government. It requires active participation of officials at all levels.

It is truly admirable that under the leadership and appeal of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a large team of medical doctors have volunteered to be at the frontline, playing active roles in preventing Covid-19 transmission and treating infected patients. A team of volunteer medical doctors led by Hun Mani have joined hands while a task force led by Hun Manet has timely arranged hospitals and suitable places for vaccination, quarantine and treatment of Covid-19 patients.

At the same time, many philanthropists have contributed significantly to the purchase of vaccines, Covid-19 prevention campaign, and the acquisition of NokorTep Women’s Hospital to be converted to a treatment facility.

The Covid-19 vaccination drive has been very active throughout the country, with the voluntary participation of government officials and people among the priority groups getting vaccinated.

Cambodia, known as “a small country having big heart”, also allows foreigners to get vaccinated against the disease for free.

Despite great positive achievements, there are some shortfalls in the prevention of Covid-19.

Officials in charge of quarantine centres were not diligent enough. They seemed to have underestimated the severity of the Covid-19 situation, which had consequently led to the devastative February 20 community outbreak. Only punishing a hotel security guard for his negligence leading to the outbreak would not be an acceptable response in the eyes of many people.

One may ask how a few foreign women could possibly bring the new variants of Covid-19 into Cambodia without assistance from powerful individuals and why would an ordinary security guard be able to get them out of the quarantine site and spread the disease to many people in the community.

This should be a systemic problem to be solved.

It should be noted that the improper use of power and excessive implementation of government-imposed laws and measures are still commonly seen. This would have caused the general public’s distrust in government officials. The negligence in duty by lower-level officials has consequently contributed to public scepticism about the loyalty and commitment of the top leadership in their efforts to protect the wellbeing and safety of the population. It has also had some negative impact on the implementation of administrative measures.

While a large number of people including workers, civilians and soldiers have volunteered to be vaccinated according to the government’s priority arrangement, some remain reluctant to get inoculated with vaccines produced in China – Sinopharm and Sinovac – and India, namely AstraZeneca, which is marketed as CoviShield.

This has prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to reiterate his call – which doubles as pressures and warnings – for both military personnel and civil officials to get vaccinated He has instructed the heads of public institutions and the Ministry of Civil Service to prepare a name list of officials who have not volunteered for vaccination. The prime minister has warned that those who fail to do so risk losing their jobs.

One can ask whether those who refuse to get vaccinated would want to be infected or not afraid of Covid-19? The answer is simply no. They have little confidence in the leaders’ appeal. And they do not have sufficient information about the quality, effectiveness, and possible side effect of vaccines made in China and India in order to make their proper decision.

In conclusion, the people’s trust in the government is key to ensuring an active response to the call and effective implementation of government measures. Law enforcement officials shall refrain from abusing their authorities and excessively enforce any law beyond its intended purpose in order to avoid needless disappointment among members of the public.

The general public should also understand that the Covid-19 pandemic is a critical public health crisis severely damaging their livelihood and causing deaths – a situation that could hardly be recovered. Hence, it is important for them to join the government by all means including providing spiritual, material and financial supports in order to prevent the Covid-19 transmission in our country at any costs.

The prevention of this deadly disease is the duty of us all. It is not for political reason or political interest of any party but it is being done for upholding natural cause and protecting our homeland.

Nobody is safe until everyone is safe. In this tough situation, let all people be united in the vaccination campaign and strictly abide by health and administrative measures for the wellbeing and safety of all of us, our family and country.

Ly Tayseng is Managing Partner, HBS Law and HBS Notary Public.

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