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Phnom Penh Plans Send Westerdam Passengers Sightseeing, Even As Officials Scramble to Test Them

Passengers react after they disembark from the MS Westerdam, back, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Hundreds of cruise ship passengers long stranded at sea by virus fears cheered as they finally disembarked Friday and were welcomed to Cambodia.
Passengers react after they disembark from the MS Westerdam, back, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Hundreds of cruise ship passengers long stranded at sea by virus fears cheered as they finally disembarked Friday and were welcomed to Cambodia.

Cambodian authorities are now testing all remaining passengers and crew aboard the docked MS Westerdam cruise ship in Sihanoukville, days after an American woman tested positive for COVID-19 despite being cleared by local officials in Cambodia.

But, even as officials in Preah Sihanouk seemed to be taking additional steps to confirm if passengers were infected with the virus, Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng said passengers in the capital would attend an event at the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel Monday evening.

Khuong Sreng, however, refused to comment on local media reports about City Hall planning a tour of the city’s tourist landmarks for the Westerdam passengers.

Met Measpheakdey, Phnom Penh Municipality spokesperson, told VOD Khmer that buses were being prepared to take around 200 Westerdam passengers to tourist spots across the city, to highlight Cambodia’s development.

However, photos posted on the governor's Facebook page showed passengers boarding buses at the Sokha Hotel, most not wearing masks, some of them being welcomed by Khoung Sreng himself, and images of the buses parked outside the Royal Palace at Phnom Penh's popular Sisowath Quay.

Or Vandine and Ly Sovann, both spokespersons for the Ministry of Health, could not be reached for comment on the conflicting actions taken with the remaining Westerdam passengers.

Back in Preah Sihanouk, provincial officials said around 1,000 samples – 233 tourists and 747 crew members – were being collected and sent to Phnom Penh’s Pasteur Institute to be tested for the COVID-19.

The decision comes two days after Malaysian officials announced that an 83-year-old American woman, who had been aboard the Westerdam, had tested positive for the virus two times, with her husband testing negative.

The American woman was one of the more than 140 people who transited through Malaysia on their way home, raising serious concerns over the quality of health checkups conducted in Cambodia, prior to passengers leaving the cruise ship.

Kheang Phearum, a spokesman for the provincial government, said it was unclear how long the tests would take but that the decision was taken to ensure the safety of tourists and Cambodians.

“We have no choice. We need to do this to protect the tourists’ safety and our own people’s [safety] as well,” he said.

It was not immediately clear if passengers cleared to leave the ship and awaiting their flights in Phnom Penh had also been tested.

On its Facebook page, Holland America released a statement, saying officials from the Cambodian Health Ministry are on board on Monday “to complete testing for COVID-19 on the 255 guests and 747 crew that are awaiting clearance.”

“We anticipate this will take several days and greatly appreciate the thoroughness of all authorities involved in resolving this situation,” the statement reads.

“Guests at a hotel in Phnom Penh have all completed the COVID-19 screening. Results are being returned when completed, with the first batch of 406 all being negative. Cleared guests may travel home, and arrangements are being made for those guests,” it adds.

However, Christina Kerby, an American tourist aboard the ship and who has tweeted frequently about the ordeal, posted to the microblogging website that she had been tested for the virus in Phnom Penh.

“Still awaiting results of my #covid-19 test and will not travel until I know I can do so safely without risking the health of others - however long it takes,” she tweeted Monday afternoon.

Prior to the docking of the MS Westerdam last Thursday, Cambodian officials tested only 20 people aboard the cruise ship, who had complained of various symptoms. None of the twenty were positive for COVID-19, with other passengers getting more general health checks prior to disembarking the cruise ship.

The government of Cambodia, which has strong ties to Beijing, had allowed the stranded cruise liner to anchor off its coast Thursday morning prior to docking. The vessel, with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, had been turned away by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and the U.S. territory of Guam. The ship, which is owned by U.S.-based Holland America Line, left Hong Kong on February 1.

Despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attempts to downplay the viral outbreak, there is growing concern over containment of the disease after news of the American woman testing positive.

While, Hun Sen and an entourage of officials greeted the passengers with roses, to mark Valentine’s Day on February 14, journalists and the public were asked to stay away from the cruise ship on Monday.

A bus driver, who asked to give only his first name for fear of reprisal, said he has been asked by officials to wait near the docked ship on Monday to ferry passengers to the airport.

But his concern over the American woman testing positive was exacerbated on Sunday after officials canceled charter flights meant to transport passengers to Phnom Penh.

“Now I am very concerned, because there is a confirmed case of [the virus],” said Ly.

Additional reporting by Khan Sokummono