When Dorn Dy moved to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh about ten years ago to work as a tuk tuk driver, he knew that every day he didn’t go out onto the streets would mean no income.
Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic makes this existence more precarious.
As a father of a 10-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, Dy said he uses masks and hand sanitizers to protect himself and his family from the virus.
“After my client pays me, I spray alcohol on my hands and the money I’ve just received,” he said. “And I spray the back seat with [alcohol].”
Sitting in his tuk tuk while waiting for clients, the 40-year old said he also gave sanitizer to those taking a ride with him.
With only a rudimentary public transport system in place, tuk tuks are one of the main modes of transport in Phnom Penh.
And although Dy was not sure how effective the sanitizer is in preventing the spread of the virus, he said it made him feel safer.
The novel coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, causes COVID-19. This disease can have symptoms similar to seasonal flu, such as fever and coughing. But in critical cases, it can cause pneumonia and the disease has a much higher mortality rate, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The intergovernmental body says that about 80 percent of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15 percent are severe and 5 percent are critical. Due to a longer incubation period than the flu, the virus can go undetected longer and therefore spread faster.
To prevent this spread, many Cambodians took to wearing face masks briefly after the virus broke out in China’s Wuhan.
Now, with more than 100 cases confirmed in the country, business owners have adopted more stringent measures to minimize the spread.
On the side of a touristy road in Phnom Penh, security guard Noep Boeun has taken on a different task than just watching the entrance of a cosmetic shop for potential theft: Equipped with a gun-like thermometer and a bottle of hand sanitizer, he now also watches out for the health of customers and staff. Whenever a customer wants to enter, Boeun pulls up the thermometer and points it at his or her forehead to ensure no one in the shop has a fever. Customers also have to use hand sanitizer before going in.
Boeun, 40, said that according to protocol he would have to re-check the temperature if the thermometer showed more than 37.9 degrees. “If the temperature stays the same, I ask him or her to go to the hospital,” he said.
But so far none of the customers had measured alarming temperature, he said.
Many other shops around Phnom Penh use similar measures.
On a sliding door of a supermarket in downtown Phnom Penh, two notices in bold letters remind the customers to wear masks and to use hand sanitizer when entering the shop.
Phorn Phoan, who has been working at this supermarket for more than a year, said that his company has applied the masks-only rule since the outbreak of the virus.
“If a customer comes to our shop without wearing a mask, we explain to him … [that] we need to [secure] other customers and our staff’s safety,” the 21-year-old said.
At the door, customers can purchase masks for 1,000 riels (about $0.25) – but only one at a time. Should they run out of masks, Phoan said, they would send the customer to buy a mask elsewhere and only let them in with their face covered.
“We need to protect our staff and the customer himself,” he added.
Other businesses designate one specific person to stand by the door to open it for customers so they would not touch the door handles.
Huon Chandollar, 27, who co-owns a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, ramped up health measures to keep the coffee shop running like other cafes in the city. This included having hand sanitizers ready for customers, disinfecting the tables and seats, and having staff wear masks.
“We disinfect our shop with alcohol every time the customers go in and out of our shop,” he said.
While coffee shops are for now allowed to remain open, the government has temporarily closed schools, karaoke bars, and beer gardens to contain the spread of the virus. It has also banned people from the U.S, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and Iran from entering Cambodia until at least mid-April.
According to the World Bank, about 13 percent of Cambodians live in poverty. With little social insurance available and the majority of the population being self-employed, many are dependent on their daily income. Even temporarily closing their business would mean to risk-taking up debt.
This has also been an issue for Chandollar. Despite regularly disinfecting tables and trying to reduce the risks of spreading the virus, Chandollar said he saw the number of customers dwindle over the last weeks.
“The main reason [for staying open] is that we worry about our employees,” he said. “Closing a shop doesn’t affect just us, the owners: it also affects our staff. We don’t know if they could find other jobs in this period, or how they could earn their income.”
Most of his staff members, he said, didn’t have their own houses and instead rented rooms. Losing their income from the coffee shop would put them in a dire situation, he said. “They would be struggling a lot,” he said.
The Ministry of Health continued to appeal to people to adhere to hygiene standards and practice social and physical distancing.
“At markets, vendors have to take action to prevent themselves from spreading the virus to others and vice versa,” Or Vandine, a Ministry of Health spokesperson, told VOA Khmer. “Another issue is crowding. I would like to implore my compatriots to exercise what we call ‘social distancing’,” she said.
While dozens of business owners have closed their shops in Phnom Penh as a way to limit the chances of infection, others cannot afford to do so.
Driver Dy, whose wife stays at home looking after their two children, said he has no choice but to keep driving tuk tuks.
“If I don’t make money, my wife and my kids have no rice to eat, so I have to go out and take risks.”