Early in 1984, the Vietnamese authorities who had occupied Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 decided that a wall had to be built to seal the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
The requisitioning of civilians to build the wall, known as ‘K5’ started in September 1984. Construction involved clearing of a strip of land up to four kilometres wide along the border, digging trenches, setting up dams, building bamboo fences lined with barbed wire and mine fields, and building a road to convey troops.
The first batch of workers who were dispatched to build the wall was decimated by malaria. The government blamed the malaria fatalities on bad weather and said labourers were responsible for their own poor hygiene. Hun Sen, who became prime minister of Cambodia in 1985, dismissed the risk from the sickness, describing it as easy to cure. The number of deaths from malaria alone during the construction of the K5 wall has been estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000.
The closed and isolated nature of Cambodia in the 1980s meant that the tragedy drew little international attention. Today, Cambodia, still ruled by Hun Sen, is confronted with a risk to public health with global implications in the shape of the coronavirus believed to have originated in Wuhan, China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency. The response of Cambodia’s government to date echoes that during the building of K5 in the 1980s. Hun Sen has refused to ban direct flights between Cambodia and China as this would hurt the economy, which has become increasingly dependent on Chinese tourism and investment.
Health minister Mam Bun Heng, meanwhile, has offered the original hypothesis that Cambodia is too hot to permit coronavirus to spread. Coronavirus, however, is no more responsive to bluster than malaria. It survives and spreads at human body temperature, and cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Vietnam, India, the Philippines and many other hot countries, including Cambodia. More than two million Chinese visited Cambodia in the first 10 months of 2019. The continuation of direct flights from China means that it is virtually certain that Cambodians will die unnecessarily from coronavirus. It is also safe to assume that the full extent of the virus in Cambodia will not be officially disclosed.
Common-sense precautions that need to be urgently taken are the evacuation of Cambodian nationals from China, in line with Japan and Myanmar, and the halting of direct flights from China. Cambodia should follow Vietnam in ending new visas for Chinese until the crisis has been clearly brought under control. The government should undertake an urgent public education campaign on the basic personal measures to avoid coronavirus as recommended by the WHO. These include washing hands with soap, covering the mouth when coughing, avoiding live markets in areas with the virus and refraining from the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products.
The WHO says that it is still possible to interrupt the spread of coronavirus, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect, isolate and treat cases. The weakness of Cambodia’s national health system is such that Hun Sen and others in the government routinely go abroad when they need treatment – as do most Cambodians who can afford to. Cambodia’s 2019 budget allocated $455 million to healthcare, down $30 million from 2018. Patients have found that nominally free treatments are in fact dependent on ability to pay.
In contrast to K5, this time it is not just Cambodians who are in danger. In the first half of 2019, over 3 million tourists from around the world visited the country. That makes the response of the government to date a risk to public health across the south-east Asian region, and indeed globally.
The struggle to tackle the global health emergency identified by the WHO can only be as strong as its weakest link. Both in terms of the capacity of its health service and its disregard on basic precautions on inflows of visitors from China, Cambodia stands out as a clear weak point. Thailand, which also continues to allow flights from China, has 35 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of February 18. Cambodia, officially, has only a single confirmed case. Foreign governments and the WHO, with which the Cambodian government is legally obliged to share information about the virus, must monitor Cambodia carefully, treat its official statistics with an appropriate scepticism, and press the government for a more coherent response.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.