Wat Brovuyong is nestled among dozens of small homes, most in a state of disrepair. The pagoda is hidden from the street and accessible by a narrow lane, wide enough for no more than two motorbikes.
At one end of the lane, a group of six men are playing cards, steps from the pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, a few other people are casually chatting and loitering not too far from the men. The cramped space makes social distancing all but impossible.
Down the alley, Bo Phally, an off-duty police officer, is selling mangoes. She quickly retrieves a face mask, that was drying on a rack from a recent wash. Bo Phally said she has been unable to afford masks to protect herself from the novel coronavirus pandemic, often reusing them after a quick wash.
“I cannot afford them [masks]. This was given to me,” Bo Phally said.
Prices for mask have increased exponentially, making it hard for people to afford them, pricing out poorer sections of Phnom Penh’s urban communities. Wat Broyuvong is listed as an eviction site by urban land rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
Bo Phally said she earns $400 a month, which she said she needs to pay rent and living expenses for her two sons in high school and an elderly mother. She said the required health and safety needs for the current viral outbreak were often secondary to buying rice for the family.
“I will buy rice instead,” said Bo Phally. “Of course, face masks can protect me, but for poor people like me, what if I don’t have money to even buy rice. I will collapse within 3 days even before I am infected with coronavirus.”
Despite these concerns, she has purchased half a liter of alcohol for $3.5, but has rationed its use.
“I told my children to use it only when necessary, especially when they go out,” Bo Phally said. “But when they are in the house, I told them to use soap or lemon, and shower more often.”
A few doors down, Luy Sari is selling rice porridge and fried noodles in front of her home. The 68-year-old said she was using her limited supply of masks only when she was in the market; masks distributed at her grandson’s school before it was closed in early March.
“If I don’t have money to buy new one, I would wash the used mask and reuse it,” Sari said “Or use a handkerchief instead.”
She said earnings from her small food stall were meager, barely $2 from around $20 in sales, with this lack of earnings worrying her further.
“I am worried because I am poor. I don’t have money for treatment if I get sick,” Luy Sari said.
The Cambodian government has so far provided treatment free of costs for active cases, though foreigners looking to enter the country must have $50,000 in insurance to pay for potential medical treatment if they tested positive for the virus.
Recently, government officials have been seen distributing masks and hand sanitizer to citizens, though it is unclear how uniform and widespread these efforts are or if they are reaching poorer communities.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Centre for Development and Peace, expressed concern that the virus could spread fast in congested, poorer communities. He said the lack of resources will force members of these communities to make risky decisions.
“I don’t believe the mask still have the same quality when it has been washed,” Yong Kim Eng, “It is hard for poor people to think about their health and keep everything sanitized.”
He added that information about the pandemic being distributed through government channels might not reach to poorer communities, who would need special outreach programs.
“There is information on social media” Yong Kim Eng said. “But, some poor citizens cannot access that.”