As is the case in many other parts of the world, the streets in Cambodia have become noticeably quieter in recent weeks. As yet, no curfew has been imposed and there is still a lot of activity in the capital, Phnom Penh. However, there are fewer people on the roads than usual and the pagodas remain empty, as religious activities are currently prohibited. Schools and many administrative offices are closed. In mid-April, the government cancelled the Cambodian New Year celebrations and restricted people’s freedom of movement to prevent them from travel- ling within the country during the holidays, with the aim of minimising the spread of the virus.
In view of the bleak economic out- look, many people fear for their livelihood and that of their families. Since the beginning of April, for example, more than a hundred textile factories have temporarily closed due to supply chain disruptions and the loss of orders from abroad. Another fear is that food prices may rise as a result of restrictions and bottlenecks in domestic production and imports. “Neither the country’s welfare system nor its medical facilities are prepared for a long-term public health crisis,” says Ilona Kuhangel, Country Director of forumZFD in Cambodia. “If the virus spreads and the economy falls into recession, it would have devastating consequences for large segments of the population. The social security system is inadequate, and many people have no savings to compensate for the loss of their jobs.”
The healthcare system is not prepared
Compared to the neighbouring countries, the number of officially reported cases of Covid-19 has so far been relatively low – in mid-April, Johns Hopkins University recorded just over a hundred infections and no fatalities yet. By contrast, several thousand cases have already been registered in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines each. That being said, there is currently only one laboratory in Cambodia that can perform coronavirus testing.
In March, the German government announced that it plans to provide € 1.5 million in funding to support the expansion of testing capacities in Cambodia in order to prevent a public health crisis. Other countries have also stepped in: China is providing Phnom Penh with money as well as medical staff and tests.
A lack of reliable information
It remains to be seen whether international aid can help to prevent or at least mitigate the spread of the pandemic in Cambodia. A major obstacle is the fact that many people do not have access to reliable information, for example about proper prevention. As Ilona Kuhangel explains, “Most of the information about the virus published by international organizations such as the World Health Organization is only available in English, with the result that large parts of the population are unable to understand it. In addition, there is a great deal of misleading or simply false information circulating in social networks. This not only fuels fear, but also makes it much more difficult for people to protect themselves properly.”
To address this issue, the forumZFD team in Cambodia shares targeted information from the World Health Organization via social networks. Members of local partner organizations also participate in these efforts to raise awareness. The Venerable Sovechea, Rector of the Buddhist University of Battambang, a forumZFD partner, was originally scheduled to attend a ten-week course at the Academy for Conflict Transformation in Königswinter, Germany, starting in March. On the way to the airport he learned that the trip to Germany had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, he is now taking part in the Academy’s online course from Cambodia and is helping to inform his compatriots about the dangers posed by the virus. In doing so, he is setting an example for promoting inter-faith dialogue, for example by working with Enrique Figaredo, the Catholic Bishop of Battambang, to provide information on proper hand hygiene.
“Peace work activities continue”
In Battambang, where forumZFD maintains a project office, people who can afford it place packages of food and hygiene products in front of their doors so that those in need can take better care of themselves. It is these small acts of solidarity that give the forumZFD team in Cambodia hope, as the restrictions to public life also pose unexpected challenges for the continuation of peace work activities.
Planned events such as conflict transformation trainings with partner organizations had to be cancelled or postponed. Face-to-face meetings with partner organizations, which are very important for building trust, are also currently not possible. All team members are working from home. Director Ilona Kuhangel nevertheless remains confident: “We have quickly adapted to the new situation and exchange information daily via video conferencing. Given that we operate at two locations in Cambodia, which are about six hours’ drive apart, we are used to such meetings via the internet. We are also in close contact with our partners in order to develop new ideas. For example, we are currently working on offering training courses online. Our peace work activities thus continue despite the coronavirus.”
This article was originally published in the forumZFD Magazine in April 2020.