ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Ready or Not, Cambodia Plots its ‘New Normal’

Official caseloads are plummeting after the government scaled back rapid COVID-19 testing.

Ready or Not, Cambodia Plots its ‘New Normal’
Credit: Depositphotos

Cambodia’s daily number of COVID-19 cases has fallen sharply since Prime Minister Hun Sen urged a change in testing policies as part of preparations for a “new normal” and the reopening of the country to international visitors.

Lockdowns and red zones in the provinces have ended, travel restrictions have been lifted amid the annual Pchum Ben festival, and sources say factions among government and business elites are demanding a return to normal and an opening of airports to foreign arrivals.

The justification has been Cambodia’s impressive rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. According to Our World in Data, 80 percent of the 16.72 million-strong population has received at least one jab and 66 percent are now fully inoculated.

However, the death rate remains stubbornly high and case numbers were rising dramatically and peaked at almost 1,000 on September 30 before Hun Sen ordered an end to widespread rapid testing, saying people simply have to learn to live with the disease.

“For those who do not have any problems, we don’t need to do a rapid test for them because this is the way of learning to live with COVID-19,” Hun Sen said in an audio message, which was sent to officials last week.

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Since then, daily numbers have fallen to around 200 cases, recorded through PCR lab testing with little clarification from authorities who, until recently, were dealing with a healthcare system that was close to exhaustion.

While the numbers remain suspect, they do have people speculating the pandemic will be relegated to endemic heralding “a new normal,” a prospect that has been subjected to some very unconvincing messaging with very little science.

That includes a dreadful piece of writing published in the government friendly Khmer Times by “an official who declined identity” who sounded more like a disgruntled businessman, arguing the daily numbers were simply an exercise in “expediency and semantics” amid COVID-19 fatigue.

Attitudes have changed. One must not be mistaken, vigilance is high but fatigue from close to two years of precautions and restrictions have pushed people to a new level of trying to live life in their own way of new normal,” stated the article. “This is why rapid tests have been disbanded with.”

It’s a nonsensical argument, which are not uncommon in Cambodia, as the valiant official added: “Thus PCR or rapid tests, people must get used to the fact that death figures may remain for some time before they taper off.”

All of Cambodia’s 2,431 deaths, out of 13,924 COVID-19 cases, have been reported since a breach in quarantine on February 20, which resulted in a major outbreak of the disease and ended what had been a relatively easy first year in dealing with the pandemic.

Since then the Cambodian economy, like that of many of its neighbors, has been crushed by COVID-19. In July, Minister of Planning Chhay Than said more than 6 million workers in the informal economy had either lost or were expected to lose their jobs due to the pandemic.

Small businesses have closed, Western expatriates have long since fled alongside the Chinese, who were on a massive investment spree before the pandemic struck.

But it’s the rich and powerful Khmers who have the loudest voices in this country and expectations have been persistently raised that Cambodia will reduce quarantining and reopen its borders in the last quarter of this year.

Airport operators and hoteliers say they have health check systems in place while the money-end of town is champing at the bit to see cash-flushed tourists return to the world’s premier tourist spot, the famed temples and ruins at Angkor Wat.

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“Some of the elites in the circle of power think that turning the economy back on will be like turning a light on. Just flick the switch,” said one business owner, who also declined to be named.

“Simply telling people ‘the new normal has arrived, ignore the numbers, get used to it and visit Cambodia now’ might not be the appropriate message.”

It’s a message the government will have to deal with once Pchum Ben – a festival for honoring ancestors – is done and Cambodians return en masse to Phnom Penh, many of them in search of work, with hopes that restrictions in the capital will end next week and better times are ahead.