Participants at a religious congregation in Malaysia last month spent all day learning religious teachings. They prayed shoulder-to-shoulder, ate meals together and slept on narrow mattresses for three days.
The meeting was attended by guests from Cambodia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and India, among others, totaling around 16,000 guests. But, little did they know that their expression of faith was putting them at risk.
At least 23 Cambodians, of the 79 who traveled for the event, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the last seven days – most attended the religious congregation, organized by the Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement, and others contracting the virus from returnees.
Around 500 positive cases have been linked to the gathering, most of which were reported in Malaysia. A similar event in Indonesia, which had attracted around 8,000 participants, has now been canceled over concerns it could have a similar effect of spreading the virus among participants.
Rorzart is one of the Cambodian men who tested positive for the virus earlier this week and is currently in quarantine at a provincial hospital.
The 46-year-old man said the group was unaware that the meeting would pose such a threat to their wellbeing. He requested that only his first name be used in this story.
Rorzart, who hails from Battambang province, said Malaysian airport officials only checked their temperature on arrival, but that there were no checks when they were returning to Cambodia on March 3.
Even at the event, there were no safety instructions from the organizers, with everyone hugging and shaking hands at the event, he said, as well as dining together and sleeping in close quarters. They even shared communal glasses of water at the crowded event, Rorzart added.
“We slept on the floor but we had our own sleeping mattresses. We were close to each other, with just enough space to stretch our arms,” he said during a phone interview Friday morning.
There seemed to have been no warning from Malaysian officials against organizing the meeting nor was there any advisory from the Cambodian government against traveling overseas.
However, since then, Malaysia has enforced a lockdown across the country and Cambodia has announced some travel restrictions, though not for travel to and from Malaysia.
“Each of us regret [joining the event],” Rorzart said. “We didn't expect to get the virus. We all didn't know.”
While four of the six people Rorzart traveled with have the respiratory disease, the virus also hit close to home - his wife tested positive this week.
His wife, who requested to remain anonymous to protect her privacy, said health officials informed her about the test results Thursday morning, but, was relieved her four children were negative for the virus.
While the Ministry of Health statement issued Thursday said she had been moved to a hospital, the woman was still at home when VOA Khmer spoke to her on the phone.
“Now I am covering my face even at home and staying away from my children,” she said.
She said it was hard to protect her children because they were reluctant to wear the mask, putting the onus on her to stay as far away as possible from them.
The couple said they were not displaying any of the expected symptoms for the disease, even questioning whether they had COVID-19.
Rorzart said he had existing digestive issues and high blood pressure, but felt fine apart from that. “My sisters and brothers called me and asked about my health very often.”
Battambang Health Director Voeung Bunreth and Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
However, on Thursday, Or Vandine said that most of the people who had contracted the respiratory disease in Cambodia were exhibiting mild symptoms and that all patients were stable.