The Cambodian government said the next 15 days were critical to controlling a new cluster of COVID-19 cases after 14 people tested positive for the disease since the weekend.
The government announced on Monday a ban on meetings and gatherings larger than 20 people, including weddings, and the closure of all schools. Additionally, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has canceled all hearings for two weeks because of a potential spread of COVID-19 to prisons.
The community transmission cluster was first detected in the family of Chhem Savuth, director of the General Department of Prisons. His wife and four other family members tested positive Sunday and eight other people had the disease as of Monday morning.
Speaking in Siem Reap on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the next 15 days will be the “largest test” Cambodia will face in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We can say whether we can or cannot keep the spread under control and it depends on the period of the next 15 days, which entirely relies on both state and peoples’ [cooperation],” Hun Sen said at the groundbreaking event of a $150 million infrastructure project.
Hun Sen said the government’s medical teams had “lost trace” of where Chhem Savuth’s wife, who was the first to test positive, got the virus, adding that they could not determine “the head and the tail” of the cluster.
“This is the difficult case that we can consider as a disaster for the country if we fail to contain it on time,” he said.
The prison official’s wife tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, after which it was ascertained she had visited Aeon Mall in Tonle Bassac commune and had traveled to Siem Reap. Chhem Savuth had attended high-level meetings at the Interior Ministry, traveled to Banteay Meanchey province, and exercised at the Phnom Penh Hotel in Daun Penh district.
Some 3,332 people had been tested as of Monday morning, according to the Health Ministry, with Hun Sen saying that some 2,000 additional people would be tested on Monday.
The Education Ministry on Sunday ordered an end to the academic year for all public schools while ordering private schools to shut their campuses and move to online pedagogy. The Culture Ministry also decided to close all museums, cinemas, and performance theaters nationwide until further notice.
A number of senior cabinet members were tested and quarantined after Chhem Savuth attended an inter-ministerial meeting on Tuesday last week. Attendants included Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Justice Minister Koeut Rith, and National Police Chief Neth Savoeun.
Li Ailan, the head of the World Health Organization in Cambodia, called the new cluster a “concern” but “not unexpected”, adding that Cambodia is utilizing its resources and preparedness for this kind of event.
“Detecting these cases is a good sign—it means our public health system is working,” Li told VOA Khmer in an email.
“The case investigation is ongoing, and we anticipate that the situation will evolve in the next days, with targeted interventions implemented accordingly,” she added. “Our common goal is to prevent largescale community transmission.
Pressed on whether WHO would change its mind in advising the Cambodian government to start mass testing to capture other undetected local transmission cases, Li said the group stood by its advice for the country to strategize its testing mechanism.
“WHO has been consistent throughout the pandemic: a strong health system for detecting, testing, isolating, tracing and quarantining contacts is essential to managing COVID-19 and its impact,” she wrote.
Last week, Chhem Savuth paid a visit to Prey Sar prison, according to the department’s Facebook page, where he inspected facilities and met with prisoners without wearing a mask.
The Municipal Court on Monday announced a two-week suspension of all trial sessions at the request of Phnom Penh prison officials, who were concerned about the virus spreading through correctional facilities.
Amnesty International and local rights group Licadho have pushed the government throughout the pandemic to reduce prison populations nationwide, which as of March had 38,990 prisoners and detainees – much higher than 26,593 it is meant to accommodate.
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s deputy director for monitoring, said the situation at the prisons was one of “very high risk.”
“We have sent the proposal for so long already, but it is a bit too late,” Sam Ath said, referring to requests to release prisoners that did not necessarily have to be detained.
Hun Sen said on Monday morning that some 382 people were tested at Prey Sar, but there are no official details of their results. Spokespersons at the Health Ministry and General Department of Prisons could not be reached on Monday.