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Cambodia Relaxes COVID-19 High Alert After Two Weeks

Students disinfect their hands to avoid the contact of coronavirus before their morning class at Santhormok high school, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The Cambodian government eased stringent COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements on Thursday, two weeks after more than 1,800 people were contact-traced by a visiting Hungarian minister who tested positive for the virus.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced Wednesday that the government had averted potential community transmission after Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó visited the country on November 3 and had a number of meetings with high-ranking officials, only to test positive on arrival in Bangkok the same day.

“It was the correct move to be extra cautious in the past [weeks] and we now enter a moment of relief to declare an end to the November 3 event,” Hun Sen said in an audio message circulated by government officials late Wednesday evening.

The government has been referring to the Hungarian minister’s visit as the “November 3 event” because they were worried about impacting bilateral relations. The minister’s visit was to inaugurate a new Hungarian Embassy office in the country.

The COVID-19 scare resulted in the closure of schools, places of worship, cinemas, museums, and theatres on November 8, but various ministerial statements on Thursday announced that they could reopen.

Some 1,800 people were identified in a cluster of both direct and indirect contacts, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, and a number of senior cabinet members were subjected to four rounds of testing and asked to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Four people have tested positive for COVID-19 among this cohort, including Hungarian Ambassador Csaba Ory, Agriculture Ministry official Sar Chetra, a Cambodian bodyguard who escorted Szijjártó, and CPP lawmaker Suos Yara.

The Health Ministry reported that Suos Yara had recovered and was released from the hospital on Monday. Additionally, 1,702 people were expected to end their quarantine on Thursday.

Hungarian officials have claimed that Péter Szijjártó was negative for the virus prior to the departure, and have contested the assertion that the foreign minister was the first to be infected.

“Since he was traveling after a negative test, no one can rightly claim that Péter Szijjártó infected anyone in Cambodia or Thailand,” Hungarian Foreign Ministry state secretary Menczer Tamas wrote on Facebook last week. “We don’t know who infected whom.”

FILE- Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, left, talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo)
FILE- Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, left, talks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a meeting at Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. (AP Photo)

He added that Szijjártó and his entourage had not been asked to wear a mask during a whirlwind of meetings and events he attended on November 3, including one with parents, which caused the closure of schools in Phnom Penh and Kandal province.

Cambodia has so far registered 304 cases of COVID-19 and no death.

Li Ailan, who heads the World Health Organization in Cambodia, “commended” Cambodia’s response but urged the country’s health officials to keep up their surveillance and to improve quarantine requirements and systems.

“The 3 November event also serves as a reminder that as long as the virus continues to circulate anywhere, no country and no one is safe,” Li told VOA Khmer in an email. “We must continue to prepare for large scale community transmission while responding to imported cases and events.”

Asked to comment on the exemptions given to VIP guests and diplomats from quarantine measures on arrival, Li Ailan said: “WHO provides guidelines on testing strategies, and each country adapts these guidelines to local needs, priorities, and resources for its own context-specific testing strategy.”

Diplomats are expected to quarantine for only 24 hours on arrival to wait for their test results. There was no report that any of these rules were applied to Szijjártó during his whole-day visit.

New quarantine measures, taking effect from November 18, require travelers to compulsorily spend 14 days in state-assigned locations, even if there were no positive cases on their flight. In the old rules, people were allowed to self-isolate at home if there were no positive cases on the flight they took to Cambodia.

Health Ministry spokespersons could not be reached on Thursday.

Sart Kunnary, a food vendor, welcomed the lifting of strict COVID-19 measures because her earnings had dropped nearly ten-fold in the past two weeks.

“I am thrilled and excited that there is no significant transmission as my kids will be able to return to school,” Sart Kunnary told VOA Khmer. “This new outbreak has brought my business down as sales are extremely low.”

Thida Win contributed to this report.