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Cambodian Health Minister Reiterates No New Coronavirus Cases, Public Apprehension Grows

FILE - Cambodians wear masks to avoid the contact of coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith

Cambodian Health Minister Mam Bunheng said Monday that there were no new cases of COVID-19 in light of increasing public concern and apprehension over the Cambodian government’s response to the viral outbreak.

At a press conference on Monday, representatives from the Health Ministry, World Health Organization in Cambodia and Pasteur Institute in Cambodia restated that Cambodia had “one single confirmed case” of COVID-19. These representatives added that the laboratory tests were based on internationally used procedures.

“There shouldn’t be any suspicion over the transparency of this institution [Pasteur Institute], and on our healthcare system as well.” said Mam Bunheng.

“There is no reason for us to hide [information],” he added.

Skepticism on social media has increased among Cambodians as Cambodia continues to maintain that there has been only one confirmed case of the viral outbreak, despite other countries performing thousands of tests to find positive cases.

Cambodian social media users have made unsubstantiated claims about people having COVID-19. For example, a photo of a fainted person made the rounds of Facebook last week, provoking questions about whether that person had COVID-19.

Health Ministry spokesperson Or Vandine called these reports as fake news and said the ministry would not react to them. She added that autopsies would be conducted on suspected cases only if the person had travelled to a COVID-19 reporting country or had exhibited symptoms.

The novel coronavirus has spread to around 70 countries, with South Korea and Iran showing recent and significant increases in positive cases. More than 3,000 people have died from the virus, around 2,900 of them from within mainland China. There are upwards of 90,000 positive cases across the world as of March 3.

FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech to passengers after they disembarked from the MS Westerdam, owned by Holland America Line, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.
FILE - Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech to passengers after they disembarked from the MS Westerdam, owned by Holland America Line, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has called for individuals and families to ensure personal hygiene as a preventive measure, even going as far as to label those spreading “fake news” as terrorists.

However, Cambodians VOA Khmer spoke to on Tuesday remain concerned and are still in the dark about the viral outbreak.

Hang Maly, 60, and Theam Channa, 45, chatted with each other in Phnom Penh while surfing Facebook outside a store and said they learned of the novel coronavirus from social media.

“I’ve heard about it [COVID-19], but I don’t understand what it is. I don’t know where it really comes from,” said Hang Maly.

Despite the government’s assurances, Hang Maly remained skeptical of the number of reported cases in Cambodia.

“I doubt it. I don’t believe we don’t have it. I think we may have it,” Maly added.

Outside Phnom Penh International Airport, Ky Pheak, a 31-year-old fruit vendor, said he had heard about basic hygiene measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

But, the increase in face mask sales, he said, had resulted in an increase in its cost and he now found himself priced out.

“I heard the recommendation to use a hand sanitizer to wash the hands, but I can’t afford to buy it,” he said. “Even a mask has become more expensive, [around $1] per mask.” he said.

He too felt it was likely the government would want to keep new cases under wraps.

“Even if there were [cases], I think they wouldn’t let us know, they wouldn’t let us hear this kind of news.” Ky Pheak said.

Experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently released research questioning the number of reported cases in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told VOA News last month that it was “not very likely” that Cambodia had only one reported case, with the research taking into account the average number of airline passengers flying from Wuhan to other cities around the world.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in an overt show of support to close ally China has refused to restrict flights and tourist arrivals from mainland China, or even from other countries witnessing significant increase in COVID-19 cases.

Pich Sokna, a food vendor at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, said people she knew were worried about COVID-19, even though they knew little about the viral disease.

“When I look at [the news] from my phone, I can’t sleep,” she said. “Now, I don't look at it anymore, only my daughter reports about it to me.”

On Monday, Health Minister Mam Bunheng also outlined measures to add another testing laboratory at the National Institute of Public Health. He said Cambodia will continue to learn from China’s experience on how to treat COVID-19 patients.