A government plan to alleviate financial hardship by providing food and supplies at subsidized prices will do little to assist residents of Cambodia’s capital region in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown because they have no money to buy the goods, sources said Thursday, a week into the stay-at-home order.
Last week, the government implemented a 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao in Kandal province from April 15-28 and requiring the two cities’ combined 2.3 million residents to adhere to a strict curfew or, in certain “red zones,” stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency.
While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s economy—which is leans heavily on the production of textiles—has been battered by a drop in export demand and a series of lockdowns meant to stem the spread of the virus. Migrant workers in next-door Thailand also lost their jobs in lockdowns.
Last month, Cambodia registered its first death from COVID-19, a year to the day that that the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the virus that causes it a pandemic. Since then, 59 people have died, and the country’s caseload has reached more than 8,000 people. Authorities on Thursday recorded more than 400 new cases alone.
The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue the latest lockdown order last week, but residents of affected red zone districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao told RFA’s Khmer Service that they have yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes.
The residents, who are mostly laborers in garment factories and workers in the country’s informal sectors, were told to remain in their dwellings as part of the emergency order and said they are now facing critical shortages. The Ministry of Commerce recently began sending “mobile markets” on the back of flatbed trucks into the area to provide inhabitants with access to food at subsidized prices.
But on Thursday, several red zone residents told RFA that even with the ministry’s plan in effect, they lack the money to buy anything because they have either been unable to travel outside of their neighborhoods to earn money or have lost their jobs completely.
A woman who lives in Phnom Penh’s Steung Meanchey district named Keo Vanny said nobody in her neighborhood had received any aid from the government and that many of the people renting small rooms in the area have skipped meals entirely or were only eating rice with fish sauce.
She said most residents are scavengers, street vendors, and workers who lack the money to buy food at all, regardless of whether the Ministry of Commerce sets up markets near where they live. She urged authorities to provide them with aid before they starve.
“No one is making any money because they are afraid of being beaten—when we see sticks we run away,” she said, referring to baton-wielding police who roam the streets violently enforcing the lockdown against anyone who is found outside their homes.
“My neighbor doesn’t have any money. He asked for food, so I helped him.”
A laborer living at a construction site in a red zone also told RFA he had no money to buy food from the Ministry of Commerce because he and his coworkers lost their jobs.
“I haven’t had any income for the past 10 days,” he said, adding that he had turned to social media to beg for food.
Similarly, several taxi drivers in Steung Meanchey told RFA that they are quickly losing the ability to provide for their families during the lockdown because of the stay-at-home order and their need to pay house and taxi rent. They also called for immediate assistance from the government.
“I have seven children to feed, but since I have to respect the government’s ban on running tricycle taxis, I have little money to buy them any food,” said Hem Chan, a 50-year-old driver in the Steung Meanchey Thmey Market area.
Government lacks plan
Ministry of Commerce spokesman Penn Sovicheat told RFA that officials are busy distributing food to “poor people” and others “who cannot afford to buy food,” at the government’s instruction.
He said the ministry is selling food and supplies at below market rates and that “many people” have bought rice, canned fish, instant noodles and water, which was then delivered to their homes.
“We have had some interruptions in food coming to the cities because of transportation delays,” he said, adding that his ministry is working with Ministry of Agriculture to arrange the distribution of meat and vegetables to people in red zones.
Vorn Pov, president of Cambodia’s Independent Democratic Association of Informal Economy (IDEA) watchdog group, urged the government to sell food and supplies at even lower prices, as many people can’t afford them at current rates.
He also called on the government to allow people to sell some essential goods so they can earn an income, while providing social protections for informal workers, such as taxi drivers.
“My understanding is that the government lacks a social protection support mechanism to protect informal workers, especially people who run small businesses like tricycle taxi drivers during the lockdown and curfew,” he said.
“The state does not have a plan for the economy, the daily food supply, or to intervene with lenders [to suspend debt repayments] in a way that specifically addresses the problems facing those with informal jobs.”
The UN World Food Programme said in February that relatively stable food prices in Cambodia suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has not had a significant impact on supply, but has impacted demand, as “many households have lost their livelihoods and income, thereby restricting their ability to afford a sufficient and diverse basket of nutritious foods.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.