Phnom Penh (FN), May 10 – Nations go through periods of easy and hard times. A systemic crisis of massive magnitude and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic tests national strength, cohesion, and resilience. Some nations have become polarised in the face of the pandemic crisis while some have spiralled into deep conflicts and failed states. A national crisis can either divide or unify a country. It can be a process for transformative and robust nation-building. What a country is investing today in its struggle against the pandemic crisis defines the country’s future national health and trajectories.

Like many countries, COVID-19 is a national security threat for Cambodia. It disrupts society, damages the economy, and threatens public health. As of May 5, Cambodia’s total COVID-19 infected cases are 16,971, with 6,019 recovery cases and 110 deaths. Despite the devastating impacts of the pandemic, Cambodians as a nation have come together performing their roles, taking responsibility, and making contributions in ideas, skills and kind and cash to fight COVID-19 and rebuild the country. The pandemic crisis strengthens national solidarity and civic participation.

Due to space limitations, this article highlights the roles, commitments, and efforts of the Cambodian government in mobilising resources and investing in national campaigns to save lives and steer the country out of the pandemic crisis.

For a little over a year from when the first COVID-19 case was detected in the country on 27 January 2020 to the time before the 20 February community transmission, Cambodia was able to control the pandemic, with very low daily detection of new cases or zero new cases on certain days. As of 18 February 2021, the country’s total infected cases are 484, with 470 recovery cases and zero death. The country’s ability to control the pandemic was due to the government’s leadership, commitment, and decisive actions with the cooperation of the mass population and other domestic and international stakeholders.

The government also rolled out programmes, Emergency Cash Transfer and Cash for Work, to minimise the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy and poor and vulnerable households. The government allocated USD 25 million per month in 2020 to the Emergency Cash Transfer Program, which distributed money to poor and vulnerable families through the IDPoor, an existing programme identifying and categorising poor Cambodian households for government interventions. Cambodia’s relative success in controlling and minimising the negative impacts of the pandemic was applauded by the WHO representative, and the country was ranked number 3 out of the 166 countries and number 1 in Asia for its handling of COVID-19 in an international ranking report released in November 2020.

The 20 February 2021 COVID-19 community transmission or the so-called ‘20 February event’ is a serious threat to public health because the number of infected cases has skyrocketed, overwhelming hospitals and medical resources. Cambodia reported the first COVID-19 death on 11 March, and the daily infected cases have been three digits since late March forcing the government to enforce a curfew and a three-week-long lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province, only lifting it on 6 May.

Despite the seriousness and devastating impacts arising out of the 20 February event, Cambodians have demonstrated national resilience and solidarity, and the government remains committed to safeguarding the nation against this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic crisis. The national and sub-national authorities and different state institutions have been working in tandem to save lives and minimise the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Hun Sen exercises leadership in monitoring the situation and providing direction.

Senior government officials held consultative meetings with relevant state agencies till midnight to devise plans and measures for implementation. The police and military police have been working around the clock to enforce the curfew and lockdown orders, which are generally peaceful and orderly, thanks also to people’s cooperation. The military has provided its medical, transportation and logistics resources to assisting the national campaigns to treat COVID-19 patients and vaccinate the population.

Cambodia’s medical doctors and personnel have demonstrated impressive courage and professionalism despite being overwhelmed by the rapid surge in virus cases. When Cambodia reported the first few cases, there was a widely shared belief that the doctors and nurses would be panicked and run away from their duties if the infected cases increased. However, more than one year into the fight against the pandemic and with more than 10,000 COVID-19 patients now receiving medical care and treatment nationwide, Cambodia’s medical personnel have proved this belief wrong. They remain committed to their duties although some of them have contracted the Coronavirus in the process of performing their work. Staff at the Institute Pasteur du Cambodge in Phnom Penh work both weekdays and weekends and on some days until dawn in analysing thousands of daily tested samples to ensure timely reports of COVID-19 positive cases.

Cambodia’s medical sector has also received assistance from Samdech Techo Voluntary Youth Doctors Association (TYDA). TYDA’s participation and spirit of voluntarism have greatly helped boost morale and relieve stress and strain on the public health sector. The association has participated in preparing 51 hospitals and field hospitals with a total capacity of more than 4,300 beds for COVID-19 patients. Furthermore, TYDA’s members help prepare food for the patients. TYDA is also a major force committing its members to the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

Cambodian people have also demonstrated their civic duty and culture of sharing by making cash donations of more than USD 56.9 million to the government’s fund for vaccine procurement. Their participation through donating this quite big amount of money for the noble course of protecting the nation is an encouraging sign and optimism for the country's future. Joining with the people, the Queen Mother and the King have graciously donated cash four times with a total amount of USD 3,700,000.

Peace, political stability, and strong annual economic growth over the last two decades have provided favourable conditions in supporting national resilience and solidarity amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

In moving forward, the Cambodian government is accelerating the national campaign for mass inoculation. According to the recently released Strategic Plan for National Vaccination Campaign against COVID-19, the government aims to achieve socio-economic resilience through mass vaccination to create herd immunity in Cambodia by the end of 2021. As of May 4, Cambodia vaccinated 1,515,447 people, putting the country second (only behind Singapore) among ASEAN countries that have implemented quick vaccination campaigns against COVID-19. According to the Asian Cultural Council’s Press Release dated 7 April 2021, Cambodia also received a good ranking from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as one of the 17 countries in the world that have given priority to vaccination against COVID-19 for teachers. Cambodia’s vaccination achievements are impressive and have demonstrated the government’s relentless efforts in securing vaccines for the Cambodian population while the world is facing a short supply of vaccines. The bulk of vaccines that Cambodia has secured came from different sources, from the government’s purchase and gracious donations from China and COVAX Facility.

Diplomats, staff of diplomatic missions and their accompanying family members, and members of UN agencies, International Organisations, international NGOs, foreign financial institutions, and foreign businessmen have also benefited from the government’s vaccination campaign. According to the Ministry of Health’s letters dated March 21 and April 5 and 10, a total of 3,133 foreigners and Cambodian nationals and their families of the above institutions received vaccinations.

COVID-19 is a grave national security threat, but how Cambodians have responded to it is impressive and optimistic for the country’s future. The nation is in solidarity against the pandemic. The Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has exercised inspiring leadership and high responsibility in protecting the nation and enhancing the morale of caring for one another during hard times.

H.E. Suos Yara is the Director General of the Asian Cultural Council (ACC).