Da Ee had a spiritual experience in Malaysia in late February when he attended the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur. The four-day religious meeting of the Islamic missionary movement was in an affable setting, leaving Da Ee little time to think about the recent viral outbreak.
“I knew about the novel coronavirus, but I thought it was in Wuhan. It was in China,” Da Ee said, who requested his name changed for this story.
After returning from Malaysia in early March, the Cambodian Muslim man went back to living his life. But, two weeks later, health officials came knocking at his door wanting to test him for the respiratory disease.
In March, Cambodia began reporting an uptick in positive novel coronavirus cases, after a nearly month-long pause since its first case was reported in Sihanoukville on January 27. At the same time, Malaysian officials also reported a cluster of cases originating from the religious congregation, alerting other countries to test returnees from the meeting.
Da Ee tested positive for the viral disease, joining the global cohort of 167,000 people who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to statistics from John Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center from mid-March.
The Battambang resident had returned from Malaysia with eight people, with half the group testing positive for the respiratory disease, he said. In all, 79 Cambodians had traveled to Kuala Lumpur for the congregation and 29 had tested positive, said government officials in March.
The Ministry of Health had just started issuing daily press releases to announce new cases. In the second week of March, the ministry reported a sudden increase in coronavirus cases, the spike coming from the Tablighi Jamaat cluster.
The Health Ministry kept the identity of patients confidential, but chose to identify Cambodian Muslim cases with the term “Khmer Islam,” traditionally used for the Cham ethnic minority.
There was a quick religious backlash against Cambodian Muslims, who were blamed in their communities and online for being carriers of the coronavirus disease. VOA Khmer documented how Cambodian Muslims were getting into verbal altercations with ethnic Khmer Cambodians and, in some cases, were at the receiving end of hateful rhetoric.
Fearing similar treatment, Da Ee requested VOA Khmer to change his name for this story, having already experienced apprehensive looks from his neighbors in Battambang.
After testing positive, Da Ee said the only symptom he had was exhaustion. He did not have any of the other common COVID-19 symptoms, like a dry cough or a high fever.
Da Ee said he was given medication, good food, and access to the internet, the latter allowing him to pass time on YouTube.
“In the room, I prayed, I surfed the internet, and watch some funny videos,” he said. “We could tell [health officials] what we wanted to eat.”
Health officials in Battambang ensured Da Ee had a pleasant experience at the hospital, he said acknowledging that he was lucky to have mild symptoms.
Da Ee said the separation from his friends and family and having to deal with a respiratory disease that had, at the time, killed around 7,000 people globally, was frightening and hard.
“I told my family not to visit me,” he said. “The room was surrounded by a barrier and we could only talk from a distance.”
“Some of my close friends who came to visit me were not allowed to get close to me. Seeing that situation, I felt sad for them when they visited me and it affected my feelings as well.”
While other patients at the health facility were taking an average of two weeks to recover, Da Ee started to test negative for the virus within a week of treatment. He tested negative three times in a row and was sent home, but asked to remain in isolation for another 14 days.
After two weeks, he tested negative for the fourth time and the doctors said he had made a full recovery. This news even caused his neighbors to relax around him and the tensions he had experienced when he first tested positive had dissipated.
Voeun Bunreth, Battambang’s provincial health director, said health officials were trying their best to provide COVID-19 patients with the best treatment to facilitate their recovery. This included providing WiFi connections, which Voeun Bunreth said helped distract people from the illness, even if only for a short period of time.
He admitted that the facilities in Battambang were limited and that occasionally they had to make two patients share a single room, though always with adequate precautions.
“Because we have limited facilities, we allowed two patients to stay [in the same room],” he said. “When the test showed one was COVID-19 negative, we would split them.”
The provincial health director said a major concern for recovered patients was mental health issues, given the high levels of stress they had endured during the recovery process. He said the province was providing therapy and counseling to patients who requested it.
Yim Sotheary is a psychologist who used to work with Kdei Karuna, which developed programs facilitating dialogue and education in post-conflict communities. She said there were a lot of unknowns with COVID-19, especially early on, which could potentially cause stress and anxiety among patients.
“It’s a pandemic, everyone is talking about it and they hear about many deaths from the disease,” she said. “So, they fear death and this causes mental stress.”
Additionally, she echoed Da Ee’s sentiments when he could not interact with family or get their support during his treatment. She said the treatment of a highly-contagious disease can quickly turn into an almost isolated experience for the patient.
“When someone is sick, they want their loved ones near them. This disease prevents others from being near [the patient], so it contradicts what [patients] desire,” she said.
As of June 10, Cambodia had reported 126 coronavirus cases, 125 recoveries, and zero deaths. Whereas globally, the number of positive cases has ballooned to over 7.3 million, resulting in over 410,000 deaths.