People queue as they wait to receive China's Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine in Phnom Penh on May 31, 2021, as part of the government's campaign to halt the rising number of infections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

An article by Charles McDermid published in The New York Times on July 24, 2021, titled “They Were Once Luxury Venues. Now They Are Grim Covid Camps” presents a distorted picture of Cambodia’s struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The Times is telling the world that the Cambodian government is imprisoning its own people during the pandemic instead of providing medical treatment.

It is a fact that Cambodia is small and weak. We Cambodians are well aware of this fact and we are not hiding anything. The difficult situation of Covid facilities is in plain sight, and those who are in the facilities can share photos or videos on social media.

It is also a fact that Cambodia is in a “red line” situation and complaints are inevitable, and the government has publicly announced the seriousness of the situation.

The government even allows people with mild cases to receive treatment at home as health personnel are struggling to cope with the increased number of cases, which explains the slow pace of testing and care provided to individual patients or quarantined citizens.

To cope with the shortage of personnel, military doctors and volunteer doctors have been mobilized to support the vaccination campaign as well as treatment efforts.

But to suggest that Cambodia has descended to a level of “grim Covid camps” and is imprisoning its own people, as described by The New York Times, is totally misleading.

With the level of resources Cambodia has to respond to the pandemic, how can it be called “grim” when compared with New York state, which has had more than 2 million infections and more than 53,000 deaths despite all the resources it has in terms of finance, medical personnel, and medical facilities?

Let’s look at the numbers so we can put the comparison in better context.

New York state has a population of around 19 million, a little more than Cambodia’s 16 million. In terms of gross domestic product, New York state’s is more than US$1.5 trillion and Cambodia’s around $25 billion. The vaccination rate in New York state is more than 70% while Cambodia’s is more than 60%. At time of writing, Cambodia has had more than 70,000 infections and around 1,300 deaths.

By spotlighting the cases of infection of those who have been vaccinated in Cambodia, the Times is also misleading the public on the medical fact that vaccines cannot fully protect people from getting infected but can reduce the severity of cases. Even US Congress members and staff at the White House have been infected despite full vaccination.

No one can take this situation lightly.

Cambodia is trying its best to flatten the curve, to protect people’s rights to life, and to ensure that no patient is left unattended.

And Cambodia is not doing that alone.

The World Health Organization is always here with us. Friendly nations, including the US, are supporting us through provisions of vaccines, medical supplies, and equipment through both bilateral and multilateral schemes. And Cambodia also helps others even if we are in hardship.

In February last year, we received the Westerdam cruise ship with 662 American citizens out of the total 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members on board when no one else dared to accept it, including Guam; we provided masks and medical supplies to Laos, Myanmar, Timor-Leste and Nepal, and recently we also provided Vietnam with masks, oxygen concentrators and funding to help it suppress a surge of cases.

Foreign residents of Cambodia can also receive free vaccinations the same as locals.

Cambodia is not a rich country but we are not selfish, and we walk the talk when we say that “no one is safe, until everyone is safe.”

Cambodia is trying to build treatment and quarantine facilities in border provinces as Covid-19 cases in Thailand also keep increasing, and more and more Cambodian migrant workers are rushing home. These facilities are not luxurious and indeed not up to New York’s standards, but the country is doing all it can with what it has.

Cambodia cannot escape from the obligation to receive its own citizens, and taking care of them, while it also needs to ensure that any imported cases should keep to the minimum without spreading across the communities.

Cambodia’s minimal budget is not allocated to the medical fight alone. We also are trying to take care of the socio-economic impact that has been adversely affected by the pandemic.

We are running programs such as cash transfers to poor and vulnerable households, wage subsidies, low-interest loans and tax relief for businesses in hard-hit sectors, a cash-for-work program in rural areas, and support to small and medium-sized enterprises. The government has been providing cash relief to nearly 700,000 poor and vulnerable families.

Human-rights advocates, whether they are Cambodians or foreigners, should call for international support in times of emergency, and they should stand in solidarity with the Cambodian people. Casting Cambodia’s efforts to save lives as suppression of selective rights is erroneous and self-serving.

Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.