Workers wearing personal protective equipment carry disinfectant to be sprayed at the Orussey market after it was temporarily closed following vendors testing positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2021. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen plans to lift strict Covid-19 lockdown measures this week despite rising daily infections that are now nearly three times higher than when they were first imposed in mid-April.     

Current bans on intra-provincial travel will end at midnight on Wednesday (May 5), while the government has also intimated that strict lockdowns on parts of Phnom Penh and Kandal province’s Takmao town, in effect since April 15, will also be lifted. 

“There is no reason to lockdown Phnom Penh and any province anymore. We will reopen the lockdown area, except that a province or capital can close a small area which has a high risk of coronavirus spread,” Hun Sen wrote on Facebook, a statement that gives him certain wiggle-room to keep certain measures in place if deemed necessary.  

In mid-April, Hun Sen stated that strict lockdowns were imperative at a time when new daily cases were at around 300. But when he first promised not to extend most lockdown measures on Monday — in a Facebook post that responded to a supposed message from a member of the public — some 841 new cases were recorded that day. 

Of the more than 15,000 cases Cambodia has recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 10,000 were still active as of Monday. On Sunday, Cambodia saw its worst ever single daily rise of infections at 728, compared to 388 the previous day. At the time of writing, preliminary reports suggest there were 938 new cases on Tuesday. 

Since April 15, parts of the capital and other locations have been divided into three zones – red, orange and yellow – depending on the severity of the situation. 

The police have cordoned off red zones, where residents are banned from leaving their homes even to purchase food. Restrictions on movement and business activity are looser in the orange and yellow zones. 

A vendor (R) sells vegetables along a street marked for social distance after markets were closed due to lockdown restrictions to halt the spiraling Covid-19 coronavirus cases in Phnom Penh, April 30, 2021. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

While the public has generally supported the measures, there has also been criticism. Last Thursday, more than 100 people protested in the streets of Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district over claims they were going hungry. A separate protest last Friday was ended when the authorities arrived with food donations. 

The government and its associated charities have provided food parcels to thousands of households since the lockdowns came into effect in mid-April. 

On Sunday, however, Amnesty International warned that Cambodia’s “mismanaged lockdown has brought them to the precipice of a humanitarian crisis”, with reports of potential starvation in parts of the country under “red zone” lockdowns. The government has rejected these concerns out of hand. 

The economic impact of the lockdowns, with almost all business activity ceasing in the “red zones”, and only limited activity in the “yellow” or “orange” zones, could be more problematic long-term. 

The country’s vital garment industry, which provides the majority of exports, has been badly hit by the lockdown measures, with factories closed in the red zones and only limited production allowed in other zones. 

This comes after the crucial business sector, as well as the important tourism industry, suffered major hits in 2020. 

The ban on intra-provincial travel has not only stopped the poor from travelling to their family homes in the provinces, a typical way for Cambodians to deal economic hard times, it has also dented the movement of goods, food and materials. 

After contracting by around 3.1% last year, Cambodia’s economy is expected to grow this year. The Asian Development Bank last week forecast growth of around 4%. However, the pace of recovery is likely to be impacted by the longevity of the lockdowns. 

A woman carries food along a street past a barricade set up in a neighbourhood due to lockdown restrictions introduced to try to halt a surge in cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Phnom Penh on April 25, 2021. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

There are anecdotal reports that household savings are running short after recovering at the end of 2020. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are also reportedly running out of liquidity. 

The government, too, is clearly cash conscious. The fiscal deficit has risen considerably since the beginning of the pandemic and the government has been forced to guarantee some public loans.   

Last month, Hun Sen promised that poor households located in red zones would receive one-off cash donations from the government. But he quickly rolled back the promise after stating that it would cost the government too much and instead promised instead to deliver food parcels. 

Despite Hun Sen’s announcements, it remains unclear for now as to what exactly will change at midnight on Wednesday. Except for the lifting restrictions intra-provincial travel, the prime minister has intimated that the same color-coded lockdowns could still apply.

Some could read this as a cynical ploy by Hun Sen to hedge his government’s responsibility for the lockdowns, which are likely to become more unpopular the longer they continue, and shift the burden onto city or provincial governors.

Rather than the central government managing these localized shutdowns, they will going forward be the purview of local officials, according to Hun Sen.

It may also be a cynical move by the national leader driven by political, not epidemiological, imperatives.  

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he receives the AstraZeneca vaccine during a vaccination campaign against the Covid-19 coronavirus at Calmette hospital in Phnom Penh on March 4, 2021. Photo: Kok Ky / AFP

His ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979, is solely in charge of managing the pandemic as a de facto one-party state.

The CPP banned the country’s only viable opposition party in late 2017 over spurious charges of plotting a US-backed coup, and went onto win all 125 parliamentary seats at the following year’s general election. 

But the CPP is still highly sensitive about its popularity ahead of local elections next year and a new general election in 2023. 

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) remains banned and its president, Kem Sokha, is still in detention after his arrest for treason in September 2017. His trial has been constantly delayed.

Hun Sen was thought to have been planning a major political move in 2021, either by pressuring Kem Sokha to snub his allies and reconstitute a weakened and dependent CNRP, or by agreeing to some form of mediation to solve the political crisis.

But any spasm of public dissent, especially over the government’s handling of the latest wave of the pandemic, could throw Hun Sen’s political plans into disarray. 

A man receives a dose of China’s Sinovac Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Australian Center for Education in Phnom Penh on May 1, 2021, as part of the government’s campaign to halt the rising number of cases of the virus. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The government’s saving grace may be its so far effective vaccination policy. As of May 3, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health and the Ministry of National Defense have vaccinated more than 1.4 million people, the second highest rate of vaccination per capita in Southeast Asia after only Singapore. 

Announcing the lifting of shutdown measures, Hun Sen called for mass vaccination of around 800,000 people currently residing in the country’s red zones.  Meanwhile, the military was this week drafted in to assist the Health Ministry in its vaccination drive. 

Hun Sen, then, may be wagering on a high-stakes ploy: Lift the restrictions and allow the economy to recover and hope that the vaccination campaign speeds up more quickly than new infection rates.