/Cambodia kept coronavirus in check for a year. Now as infections surge, people in lockdown go hungry – ABC News

Cambodia kept coronavirus in check for a year. Now as infections surge, people in lockdown go hungry – ABC News

For the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia was in the enviable position of having one of the world’s lowest numbers of infections.

Now, the South-East Asian nation is not only trying to control its most serious outbreak, it’s dealing with a simultaneous crisis, with tens of thousands of people under lockdown running out of food.

The Cambodian government has declared areas with the most coronavirus cases to be “red zones” and banned people from leaving their homes except for medical reasons. That means people in these zones are not even allowed to go out to buy food and other basic necessities.

Most of the red zones are in the capital Phnom Penh and the nearby city of Takhmao.

Many of those who have broken the rules have been beaten with rattan canes or arrested — actions police have defended “to save lives”.

Food supplies dwindle for people in red zones

The government has been distributing aid packages with rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, canned fish and bottled water, but many people have missed out.

Rows of Cambodians in face masks stand in front of rice bags

Reuters: Cindy Liu

Naly Pilorge from the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) told the ABC people are scared and starving.

Based on the 2019 census, she estimated almost 300,000 people live in the red zone areas.

“It’s not just poor people and often people who are ignored by society, but also the middle class is running out of food,” she said.

“It’s not normal in a country like the size of Cambodia where we grow food that we can’t feed our own people.”

Ms Pilorge said food trucks had been turned around at red zone road blocks, markets inside the zones had been forced to close, and the government’s handout food program was not adequate.

A man in a helmet and face mask with a tray of vegetables

“The packages of food are not nutritious, they’re very slow to distribute, and most of all they’re very selective,” she said.

“So if you’re perceived as an activist or you don’t have connections, you often don’t get these donations.”

Ms Pilorge said non-government organisations (NGOs) had not been granted access to the red zones to deliver food packages, but had been doing whatever they could to help people.

Infections suddenly surge in Cambodia

Cambodia has seen more than 11,700 COVID-19 infections and close to 90 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

A man sits in a gymnasium, which has been filled with hospital beds

Reuters: Cindy Liu

The numbers are low compared with other countries but the new outbreak is the most serious one yet and it is spreading fast.

Authorities said it began in the Chinese expatriate community in late February, then case numbers ballooned this month.

The UK coronavirus variant B117 has been detected in Cambodia, and the World Health Organisation said it is putting the nation is on the verge of a “national tragedy”. 

A handful of cases at the start of April has turned into more than 500 a day for the past week.

Yesterday a record 880 daily infections were recorded.

A Government Telegram group set up recently for people seeking emergency food aid, has received thousands of requests and people have taken to social media with stories of desperation.

“We have seen messages now of more and more people comparing the situation with the Khmer Rouge period,” Ms Pilorge said.

A policeman takes a photo with his phone

Reuters: Cindy Liu

“The violence, the lack of food, the discrimination against poor people, the lack of responsibilities of companies to pay employees if they are laid off or no longer able to work, and so on.”

The Khmer Rouge was a barbaric regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot.

In four years, two million people died from starvation, overwork, disease or execution. 

Families left with just a carton of eggs

The ABC has spoken to several people in lockdown, who agreed some community restrictions were a good idea, but now feared the strict lockdowns would lead to starvation.

Father of three Man Vaesna, 37, said last week the only food his family had left were 10 eggs.

Read more about COVID-19 vaccines:

“I was worried … because we were waiting for food from the Government and they were very late to give us food.”

He has since received a Government-assistance package with rice, fish sauce, canned fish and dry noodles, but does not know what will happen when those supplies run out.

Motorbike taxi driver and father of two Tim Tin, 30, said his family had been in home quarantine since April 7 after an extended family member tested positive for coronavirus.

A young Cambodian man in a tropical garden

Supplied: Tim Tin

“I can’t go out to make money and we are facing another challenge of a lack of food,” he told the ABC.

“And I’m scared if more people get COVID-19 in the future, we will not have enough food because we don’t know when [the lockdown] will be finished.”

Authorities refuse help from NGOs as food runs out

At a press conference earlier this week, Phnom Penh City Deputy Governor Nuon Pharath said authorities had been working hard to help people.

“The food distribution has been allocated to the right places and given to the right people, and done safely,” he said.

He added that because so many people were in need it was impossible to hand out food packages quickly, but distribution teams were working as fast as they could and would continue to do so.

Cambodian media has reported that King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk have donated thousands of tonnes of food and 950 cases of drinking water to authorities to hand out in red zones.

A man on a bike talking to two women holding plastic bags of food

Reuters: Cindy Liu

Authorities have put Phnom Penh and of Takhmao under lockdown until at least May 5.

NGOs such as LICADHO and Equitable Cambodia said authorities needed to accept their assistance.

“We understand the Government approach to stop this [virus] spreading further, but it is very important that we cannot care about the disease without caring about the people’s stomachs,” Eang Vuthy from Equitable Cambodia said.

Mr Eang, who lives in a red zone himself, said the Government needed to provide more food for people and it must be free while they have no capacity to work.

“You can feel how frustrated and how nervous [people] are basically to support their family members and to make sure they are not hungry,” he said.

“But how can they do that because they cannot go out and leave the house?”

A Cambodian nun in a face mask holds a golden bowl filled with flowers next to a golden Buddha statue

Reuters: Cindy Liu