The visit to Cambodia of Hungarian Foreign Minister Pieter Szijjártó at the start of this month did not go entirely as planned. Having tested negative for coronavirus before leaving his country on Nov. 2, he tested positive when he arrived in Thailand from Cambodia on Nov. 3. The conclusion is that he must have caught the virus during his stay of just hours in Cambodia.
The development triggered panic within Cambodia’s government, members of which had been in direct or indirect contact with the European minister during his brief stay in Phnom Penh. The sense of panic was sharpened by photos and videos showing that the visit took place without a mask being worn and with no apparent social distancing measures. Along with hundreds of senior officials and their families, Prime Minister Hun Sen went into a two-week isolation, while schools and many other public places have been closed again until further notice.
Among the hundreds of Cambodians who may have had direct or indirect contact with the Hungarian minister, and who have been tested for coronavirus, there has, so far, only been one positive test. We have no way of knowing if it was the Cambodian who infected the Hungarian, or vice versa.
The precautionary measures which have just been taken start, in some eyes, to appear disproportionate and exaggerated as COVID-19 has largely spared Cambodia up until now. In fact, since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago, Cambodia has not had any deaths from the virus, nor even a severe case of COVID-19. This is despite the fact that the country has never closed its borders and has continued to accept without restriction flights from China, the epicentre of the pandemic in December 2019.
This special status has increasingly led observers to ask themselves why Cambodians have resisted COVID-19 so well, even while foreigners who have coronavirus could have transmitted it to them while visiting or passing through our country. At the start of the pandemic they were, for example, still visiting the Angkor temples in great numbers.
The answer is probably related to genetic factors which I have already explained in several articles in The Geopolitics, and notably hemoglobin E, which has been described by leading scientists such as Jean Bernard as a characteristic of the Khmer race.
Hemoglobin E has given protection to the Khmer people against the most severe forms of malaria since the Angkor era, and seems also to protect Cambodians now against serious cases of COVID-19. It is interesting to note that the worst cases of malaria and COVID-19 have strikingly similar pathological symptoms: thrombosis (formation of blood clots), pulmonary embolism and strokes.
Cross immunities are being talked about more and more to understand why some people or groups of people are more resistant to COVID-19 than others. Is there any reason why partial immunity to malaria would give at least partial immunity to COVID-19? Further evidence for the existence of cross immunity comes from Africa, where areas in which malaria is endemic are resisting COVID-19 relatively well.
Whether due to a protecting genetic factor, cross immunity or a combination of both, the special case of Cambodians and COVID-19 merits scientific research. For many illnesses, there is as much to be learned from the people who are not sick as from those who are.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).