Cambodia’s cities have been facing restrictions for much of the year but that may be set to change as the government considers when to reopen the country to foreign tourists and how long it can bear the economic and social costs of forcing businesses to close.
In March the government closed schools across the country and suspended cinemas, galleries, massage parlours, gyms, clubs and museums. It banned dining-in at restaurants and cafes and suspended alcohol sales in areas under curfew.
The precautions didn’t prevent a lockdown in Phnom Penh in April and May and since then clubs, gyms, karaoke clubs and other establishments have seen their forced closures extended every two weeks. Bars were added to the list in July along with a ban on alcohol sales. Restaurants were shut temporarily but reopened following an outcry, provided they could ensure social distancing and a maximum of 15 customers at any time.
Now the country is heading for a three-day holiday to mark the Pchum Ben festival. People will not be able to honour their ancestors at temples after the government ordered them to stay away because of Coronavirus fears. With the latest city restrictions due to expire on the last day of the Pchum Ben holiday, many are saying it is time to drop them and let businesses prepare for the return of foreigners.
Cambodia could learn a lesson from Thailand, which is considering allowing spas, cinemas and museums to reopen and shortening Bangkok’s curfew by an hour. The government wants the Thai capital to be open to foreigners from the start of next month. “It is a very good news that we’ve received from Bangkok.
Thailand understands that the vital organ of the country is starting to be badly damaged if there’s no measures taken to restart the economy” said Sothea Sambath, president of the Cambodia Business Council Association in Thailand.
When it comes to immunisation, Cambodia is far ahead of its neighbour in moving towards herd immunity to Covid-19. Thailand has fully vaccinated 33 percent of its population, according to the Reuters Coronavirus Tracker, while Cambodia has given 73 percent of its people two shots.
The Kingdom has reopened schools after a campaign to vaccinate the under-18s. That may have triggered a resurgence in cases, which are closing in on their July high, while Thailand’s cases have dropped sharply since peaking in August.
“Despite accelerated vaccination progress, risks of a protracted outbreak and further disruptions remain high, given continued high numbers of infections and deaths,” the World Bank said this week in a regional economic update.
It also pointed out the cost of Covid restrictions. “Disruptions to economic activities due to stringent measures to curb the outbreak have led to job losses or decreased working hours, in turn reducing household incomes,” the bank said. It cited a survey showing that only 69 percent of households’ main earners were employed in March, down 13 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels.
About 45 percent of households continued to experience a lower income in March than they did before the virus hit. While the Coronavirus may be with us for the long-term, Sambath says the country must now learn how to live with the new normal.
“We should reduce the quarantine to seven days to vaccinated visitors, tourists or businesspeople and start reopening entertainment venues such as movie theatres, spas and food and beverage outlets in order to get the economy working again. If we don’t take these decisions, I’m afraid we will face a bigger collapse in the future and it will take years for the country to recover,” he said.
Some cities are unlikely to open up next week. Siem Reap was under lockdown after a spike in the Delta variant and large areas of the province were declared red zones. The province has reported more than 200 Coronavirus cases a day since the lockdown was first implemented on Sept 17.
Even if major cities end restrictions World Health Organization Cambodia Representative Dr Li Ailan says vaccination is not enough protection. She tells people to continue wearing a mask, washing hands often, staying 1.5 metres apart, avoiding confined spaces, keeping away from crowds and not touching people.
This article was first published in Khmer Times. All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.