Phnom Penh residents are facing food shortages and financial strife as the capital and Takhmau city complete a week of the country’s first lockdown due to the increasing number of COVID-19 infections.
The government has imposed a ban on entering neighboring cities, preventing movements outside the home, blocking all non-essential travel and businesses, and placing stringent restrictions on the sale of goods and alcohol.
This was exacerbated by the introduction of “red zones” which completely banned leaving one’s home, shut down markets in the area, cordoned off the vicinity and the government took over the responsibility of distributing food and essential resources.
Three communes in Meanchey district, one in Por Senchey, and three villages Tuol Kuok district are in a “red zone."
Chan Sarith, a 39-year-old motorcycle mechanic, said this was the first time he has seen such a lockdown in Phnom Penh. While he didn’t want to criticize the lockdown, it has severely affected his income.
He could previously make around $12.5 a day fixing motorcycles, but with no motorists on the streets, his income was near-zero. Added to that, he was finding it difficult to buy food to feed himself.
“It’s difficult to get food. I ate only noodles and canned fish for the last two or three days,” he said.
Thet Savin, who owns a construction material and water pump shop in Por Sen Chey district, was worried about falling short of food for her family. The business owner said the family could store a bit of food in their cramped home.
She had been able to buy vegetables and meat from a local vendor, but only a small amount.
“I bought some to keep because we do not have anything to store in such a narrow space is difficult for us,” she said.
The lockdown had affected her income, like most Phnom Penh residents, with her income dropping from $50 a day, and leaving her worried about the $200 rent for her shop.
“With such a small business, [I] can't earn much, about [$25 a day] to handle daily living expenses,” she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has issued a slew of administrative measures to prevent people from leaving their homes, threatening an extension of the lockdown if people do not comply. At least 11 people have been arrested or convicted for violating the COVID-19 restrictions.
A Telegram group created by the Ministry of Commerce to accept requests for food has amassed more than 45,000 members, most making desperate pleas for food and money. Small protests have taken place along Veng Sreng Boulevard in the “red line” areas due to lack of access to fresh food. The situation has worsened because the city’s markets have turned in COVID-19 hotspots, including the Phsar Deum Kor wholesale market.
Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association which works with informal workers, said the officials should conduct a systematic count of people who need food, especially workers who live in small rented rooms to effectively supply food.
“So, we must clearly collect names of people living in those locations, and then we will be able to supply budget and food to all of them,” Vorn Pao said. “Another solution is that the state should delay or subsidize water and electricity bills and intervene with landlords [for rent payments].”
He said the government should consider setting up food stalls and vendors in neighborhoods under stringent lockdown so people don’t have to travel far to get food.
Police officials and local authorities have resorted to excessive force to prevent people from leaving their homes, using sticks to beat people, according to videos posted on social media.
Another concern for factory workers has been wage payments. With factories closed and people unable to leave their homes, workers have not received wages for the first two weeks of April.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodia Labor Confederation, said workers were reliant on their wages for living expenses, and without their salaries for this month, they would struggle to make ends meet.
“Even the labor law states that workers’ wages are their life. If the employers don’t pay regularly, it is their big fault,” the union leader said.
“It’s because workers work to just live for one month. If there is no wage, there is nothing for them.”
Ath Thorn was concerned about the spread of the virus among garment workers, who may not have the best access to treatments and health facilities. As of April 20, government figures show that more than 1,000 of the country’s 7,700 cases are among factory workers.
VOA Khmer was unable to contact Meth Measpheakdey, spokesperson for the Phnom Penh Municipality, and Heng Sour, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labor.
Meas Nee, a social development researcher, said the immediate nature of a lockdown meant it was hard for people to be prepared with food shortages and material resources.
“But for now, it seems that [the authorities] are waiting to see what will happen, then they will respond to a level that the government can handle,” he said.
Back on National Road 3, motorcycle mechanic Chan Sarith is unsure he will have enough food or money to survive this lockdown.
“Honestly speaking, I can’t even sustain myself now or overcome my struggles. So, it’s impossible to help others, or speak of anything for them now,” he said.