Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Iv Sovann has been on lockdown with his family in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh since April 5, when the government imposed a series of strict measures to curb a sudden outbreak of coronavirus cases.
The 36-year-old family of six has no income.
Her husband, a teacher, lost his job when the school where he worked closed its doors a year ago.
Sovann kept the family afloat by working as an accounting assistant for a local transport company.
“We are not rich. We live from day to day. If we were rich like everyone else, it would be OK for us to be in quarantine for a year, ”she said.
Desperate for food, this week she was part of a group of people from Phnom Penh district in Stueng Meanchey who took matters into their own hands.
“We saw people getting food like rice noodles and canned fish, and we got nothing. So we went to ask for our food, ”she said.
His protest resulted in Iv Sovann getting a 25 kg (55 pound) bag of rice from local officials, but others were not so lucky.
“There are still a lot more families,” she says. “I don’t know why some receive donations and why others don’t.”
“ They make the news ”
Cambodia is grappling with its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began last year and has imposed strict lockdowns, accompanied by punitive fines and prison terms, in Phnom Penh and several other regions in the goal of curbing the spread of the virus.
The country has reported more than 13,000 cases and more than 90 deaths in less than three months.
Authorities have designated neighborhoods with high rates of coronavirus cases as “red zones.”
In these districts, where around 300,000 people live, villagers cannot leave their homes, except in the event of a medical emergency.
The government has promised to deliver food to the areas and has barred aid groups from entering red zones to offer relief, but its efforts appear to have failed, leaving thousands in despair.
Vorn Pao, president of the Association for Independent Democracy in the Informal Economy (IDEA), says he receives hundreds of messages every day from its members asking for help. He estimates that around 5,000 of the organization’s 14,000 members across the country do not have enough to eat, especially those in “red zones.”
“[We] lack of food, ”he told Al Jazeera.
“We call on the government to help [food] without discrimination. “
Amnesty International on Friday called on the government to allow civil society to provide aid to people facing food shortages, warning that Cambodia faces a crisis due to government policies in response to the increase in infections, all related to B.1.1.7 a variant.
Away from the global headlines, a humanitarian crisis is also brewing in Cambodia.
In the COVID-19 “ red zones ” 100,000 people cannot leave their homes, even for food.
We have checked the testimonies: it is becoming critical.https://t.co/R1Hhcy5gE7
– Elliott Fox (@ejlfox) April 30, 2021
“The outrageous mismanagement of this COVID-19 lockdown by the Cambodian government is causing untold suffering and massive human rights violations across the country,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s regional director for Asia-Pacific , in a press release.
“Right now people in the ‘red zones’ and others in Cambodia are going hungry because of fundamentally unreasonable policies.”
Phay Siphan, a government spokesperson, reacted angrily to Amnesty’s criticism.
Amnesty “does not know Cambodia,” he said, calling those who told Al Jazeera they had no food “liars.”
“We help them; we are studying the areas in which they find themselves and the situation in which they find themselves, ”he said.
“We have checked [them]. They just fabricate the news. This is not true. “
Questioned further, he doubled.
“They’re lying,” he says. “Tell me who doesn’t have food. Text me [addresses] of those who have no food. I’ll send them some food right away.
Local and international organizations have called on the government to let them enter red zones to help those in need.
“The government urgently needs to provide access to NGOs and United Nations agencies that are equipped to safely provide essential medical services, food and other essential social services in these areas,” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, the largest human rights organization in Cambodia.
Amnesty has echoed the call.
“All those held in detention must have access to adequate food, water, health care and other essentials,” Mishra said in the statement.
Cutting off food supplies
People working in construction, garment factories, land and informal labor have been the most affected by the lockdown measures, which have forced the closure of all the markets in Phnom Penh where most people buy their food. food.
Ou Virak, chairman of Future Forum, a think tank dedicated to public policy issues, said the government could alleviate shortages by securing existing supply chains from COVID-19, instead of shutting them down.
“I think the [government] should allow existing markets to open up, but make sure they are not too close to each other, ”he said.
In doing so, the government would not only help people who need food, but also farmers who are struggling to find a market for their produce.
“Closing the market is a very risky move,” Ou Virak said. “Even if you have money, you can’t buy food.”
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismisses criticism that the government has mismanaged the lockdown, saying supplies are sufficient.
“So far we have not heard of people who have died of starvation or lack of food as the government, the Red Cross and generous people are actively helping people everywhere, especially those in the red zones.” , did he declare.
Amid the new wave of cases, the country has stepped up its vaccination program and prioritized people living in red zones. More than 1.3 million people in the 15 million country have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
But he also relied on more punitive measures to curb the spread of the virus.
In March, the government passed a new COVID-19 law that imposes a fine of up to $ 5,000 and jail time of up to 20 years for those who break the rules. Cambodia has an average monthly income of around $ 550.
The United Nations has called on the government to revise the law saying it is “grossly disproportionate”.
According to Licadho, authorities have arrested 258 people under the COVID-19 law. Of these, 83 have been charged, detained and imprisoned. Last month, a provincial court sentenced four people to one year in prison for dancing and drinking.
“A public health crisis is not the time to send more people to Cambodia’s overcrowded prisons,” said Naly Pilorge.
“The COVID-19 law should be repealed and those arrested and sentenced to draconian prison terms under the law should be immediately released.
“Rather, authorities should focus on arranging safe vaccinations for at-risk populations, providing a social safety net for those who need it most, and ensuring access to food, medicine and other things.” basic necessities for the some 300,000 people locked up in the red zones of the capital. ”
Sok Eysan, however, remains unmoved.
He says the government will take a zero-tolerance approach to people breaking the COVID-19 law, as it tries to curb the spread of the virus.
“Those who violate the principle of this [COVID] the law in any article must be accountable to the law, ”he said.