Cambodia’s COVID-19 lockdown has created an avoidable food crisis

Phnom Penh. Photo: Rambo2100 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

As Cambodia’s first widespread outbreak of COVID-19 continues, lockdowns in the country’s capital are quickly creating an additional crisis that goes far beyond what’s necessary to control the virus.


Until recently, Cambodia had managed to avoid the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, though it wasn’t entirely clear how or through what policies. But with the arrival of the country’s first serious outbreak, the government has taken an approach that essentially manufactures a food security and economic crisis in the capital.

After reporting almost no cases of COVID-19 for the first year of the pandemic, Cambodia has now seen over 14,500 cases and over 100 deaths since late February with daily reported cases topping 700. 

The outbreak began when four Chinese women left hotel quarantine early and subsequent testing found dozens of cases in the area—within days, Phnom Penh’s hospitals reached capacity for COVID-19 patients. As the outbreak continued, the government imposed a strict lockdown on the capital on April 15, with police reportedly beating lockdown violators using rattan canes.

But almost as soon as the lockdown was announced, people in the restricted areas said they didn’t have enough food to comply with the orders.

Markets in Phnom Penh have been shut down. Photo: Christophe95, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lockdown deepens in virus hotspots, leaving residents without food

The government has designated areas of Phnom Penh with the highest infection rates as “red zones”, meaning residents are prohibited from going outside their homes for any reason except to seek medical care. An estimated 300,000 people live in these areas and are barred from going out to buy food or other supplies. Markets in the areas are also closed and food vendors are banned.

Authorities have distributed staples, including rice, bottled water, fish sauce, soy sauce and canned fish, to some residents.

But people in the red zones say the rations aren’t enough to feed their families and that they have no other options to access food. Some Phnom Penh residents also say the government handout program is excluding activists, therefore neglecting people who don’t have connections to those in power. Many people are denied government support and the distribution process has been marred by allegations of foul play, according to residents who spoke with Al Jazeera and other media outlets.

The government has also blocked humanitarian and civil society groups from delivering aid in the red zones, despite the authorities’ inability—or at least failure—to respond to residents’ needs.

“We are not rich. We live hand to mouth. If we were rich like others, it would be OK for us to be in quarantine for a year,” said Iv Sovann, a Phnom Penh resident who has been in lockdown with her family of six since early April.

Food aid in lockdown areas is a fraction of what’s needed

On April 29, groups of residents in the red zones began protesting the food shortage, asking for more supplies to be sent or for the government to give them another option to access food.

In response to the protests, a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Sok Ey San, admitted that the government can’t meet the immediate needs of everyone in the lockdown red zones. “There are hundreds of thousands of these people though, and we can’t resolve this promptly,” he told Radio Free Asia. 

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan claimed that the protestors were exaggerating the situation. “I’ve heard a lot about this information, it is just drama. Anyone who needs food, please do tell us. But they haven’t,” he told Reuters.

The government has reportedly set up a group on the messaging app Telegram for people to request emergency food aid.

Naly Pilorge (left). Photo: Former UN Special Rapporteur on assembly & associa shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO), emphasized that Cambodia doesn’t normally struggle to feed its people.

“It’s not just poor people and often people who are ignored by society, but also the middle class is running out of food,” Pilorge told Australia’s ABC.

She added that some residents are comparing the crisis to the conditions under the Khmer Rouge. “The violence, the lack of food, the discrimination against poor people, the lack of responsibilities of companies to pay employees if they are laid off or no longer able to work, and so on,” Pilorge said.

It’s unclear what’s behind the Cambodian government’s approach to its lockdowns; other countries have successfully executed lockdowns without denying people access to food and most leaders try to walk a fine line between controlling the coronavirus and economic collapse.

But with inadequate preparation and no plan to get food to those who need it, Cambodia’s measures are exacting a far greater toll than necessary in the name of stopping the country’s first real outbreak.

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