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COVID-19 Patients Left Without Hospital Beds, Officials Scramble to Set Up Field Hospitals

Members of the Cambodian military prepare beds for Covid-19 coronavirus patients at a wedding party hall in Koh Pich that is being turned into a field hospital in Phnom Penh on April 11, 2021. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

Phat Rath and Oeun Sokheng were informed on April 8 that they were both positive for COVID-19. The couple, who live in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, work at Din Han Enterprise, a garment factory that is a recent hotspot for the disease.

The two garment workers live in a rented room, paying $25 a month for the basic living facility. Many garment factory workers in Phnom Penh live in shared, rented rooms with congested communal areas and bathrooms.

Phat Ratha said after testing positive, the Health Ministry had not informed them if they had to go to a medical facility or a designated COVID-19 hospital. They were anxiously waiting at their rented room, all the while Oeun Sokheng’s symptoms were getting worse.

“They listed our names [as COVID-19 positive], but they didn’t come to take us for treatment. My husband’s health is getting worse. He has continuous coughs with phlegm and little blood as well,” she told VOA Khmer.

“I am worried that his health condition will get worse if there is no treatment on time.”

Din Han Enterprise has reported close to 700 cases in the last week, according to government statistics. There has been an explosion of COVID-19 cases in the country, centered in Phnom Penh’s garment factories and public markets.

A garment worker walks in front of a Taiwanese-owned factory, Din Han Enterprise, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy)
A garment worker walks in front of a Taiwanese-owned factory, Din Han Enterprise, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy)

Of the 4,600 cases reported in the country since last year, there are 2,800 active cases, of which at least 1,000 people are still waiting to be assigned to a treatment facility.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has implored Cambodians to follow health measures because cities like Phnom Penh were running out of hospital beds. The government first converted the Great Duke Hotel into a temporary health facility and nationalized the Nokor Tep Women’s Hospital with donations from wealthy tycoons.

But as the caseload ballooned in Phnom Penh, authorities scrambled to convert the Koh Pich Convention Center into a 1,800-bed field hospital to treat patients with mild symptoms.

The government, at the same time, released guidelines for home treatment of patients with mild symptoms. The Health Ministry estimates that around 80 percent of patients have mild symptoms and can be treated at home.

But, Phat Ratha wanted her husband to be hospitalized, afraid his symptoms were getting worse.

“I called the 115 [COVID-19 hotline] many times and I was told to wait. They told me to stay home and drink hot water. They said there is no space for treatment. I don’t know what to say,” she said.

“I am stuck in the room. I can’t go anywhere. I only have canned fish and eggs for food every day.”

Security and district officials are guarding locations and homes where there are a high number of cases to prevent patients or people awaiting test results from leaving their homes.

Hun Sen on Wednesday announced that Phnom Penh and Kandal’s Takhmau city were being placed in lockdown, shutting all non-essential businesses and severely restricting movements within the city.

Authorities block roads in Phnom Penh to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 15, 2021. (Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)
Authorities block roads in Phnom Penh to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 15, 2021. (Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)

Or Vandine, a Health Ministry secretary of state, did not respond to a request for comment, asking a VOA Khmer reporter to contact one of her colleagues, who could not be reached for comment.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said garment workers should be transferred to treatment facilities immediately because they live in congested housing, which was not safe for their health and could potentially infect others.

“The medical workers have to take care of them to protect their lives and to especially prevent [COVID-19] spreading to others,” he said.

The World Health Organization in Cambodia has warned of an “impending disaster” if the country did not get a hold of the current cluster, adding that peoples’ behavior during Khmer New Year could be detrimental to the spread of the virus.

“We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of COVID-19. Despite our best efforts, we are struggling to control the virus. Unless we can stop the outbreak, Cambodia’s health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed, which would have disastrous consequences,” said Dr. Li Ailan, the WHO’s representative to Cambodia.

Oeun Sokheng, Phat Ratha’s husband, did not speak much due to his incessant coughing.

“I cough often and it is not getting better. I have pharyngitis and sometimes, it is hard to breathe,” he said. “I am concerned that it will get worse.”

After a week of waiting, Phat Ratha took the desperate step of posting a message on Facebook Tuesday detailing her husband’s failing health. A day later, the two garment workers were taken to the Hun Sen Borey 100 High School where they are currently being treated with eight other patients.

“I am relieved now that I am at a treatment center because I didn’t have food to eat at home,” she said.