Updated: September 27, 2021 06:21 AM GMT
People offer food and alms to a Buddhist monk as they pray during the Pchum Ben festival outside a pagoda in Phnom Penh on Sept. 24 as authorities halted celebrations of the festival after a Covid-19 outbreak among monks. (Photo: AFP)
Authorities in Cambodia have limited the annual Pchum Ben festival amid a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases, with the disease detected in more than half of the capital’s pagodas despite a rapid rollout of the vaccination program.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said saving lives was more important than the 15-day celebration when Khmer families gather in home villages and pagodas to commemorate their ancestors in the Festival of the Dead.
Pagodas are to be avoided but authorities are encouraging people to visit ecotourism resorts instead.
“It will be a disaster for public health and the lives of the people,” Hun Sen said over the weekend, adding the risks were higher given the spread of the Delta variant.
“Medical teams took samples from Buddhist monks and laypeople at all the pagodas in Phnom Penh for testing. As a result, Covid-19 cases had been found in almost half of the pagodas,” the prime minister said.
Pchum Ben actually began last week with Kan Ben festivities — when families gather — but health authorities detected more than 45 cases in pagodas in just the first two days of the festival.
Authorities also said more than 200 daily cases were being reported out of Siem Reap
“I am very concerned that after the Pchum Ben festival, the number of Covid-19 patients and deaths may increase, which poses a serious risk to the nation,” Hun Sen said. “Some rural areas began to detect high Covid-19 cases, which could impact the plan to reopen schools.”
Pchum Ben is due to finish on Oct. 7.
The decision was made as Covid case numbers leapt by about a quarter from around 650 cases a day to more than 800. Booze bans in the capital Phnom Penh have been extended by two weeks and in northwest Siem Reap, home to the fabled Angkor temples, lockdowns have also been extended.
Seven communes in Siem Reap have been declared “red zones” and, according to the government-friendly Khmer Times, cases see no decline despite efforts to control the spread.
Authorities also said more than 200 daily cases were being reported out of Siem Reap. Markets across the province were the main source of the latest spread, aided in part by unwitting Thai truck drivers and their assistants who were infected by the disease but were also asymptomatic.
“Among daily rapid tests conducted on quarantined migrant workers, new cases of between two to five are detected daily,” the Khmer Times quoted a health official as saying.
“These people from Thailand are in their final seven days of their quarantine before they are released to return home.”
To date, Cambodia has confirmed 109,087 cases of Covid-19 with 100,655 recoveries. All 2,243 deaths have been recorded since the February 20 Community Event when two women breached quarantine and went out partying. That includes more than 6,500 cases of the Delta variant.
Despite the latest spike, Hun Sen also announced that private and public universities can reopen if they follow strict health procedures. Schools have also begun to reopen with Cambodia verging on herd immunity through its vaccination program.
Some 10.7 million people, of a targeted 10 million, have been fully vaccinated or 65 percent of the country’s total population.
Children aged 6-12 are being inoculated while studies are being undertaken in order to vaccinate the very young, very old and infirm.
Travel today is safe in Cambodia, and that’s due to the amazing work the government has been doing
Cambodian authorities have raised expectations that tourism will reopen in the current quarter, which would aid the economy. More than six million jobs have been lost, or will be lost, due to the pandemic, Minister of Planning Chhay Than recently said.
Hun Sen has suggested a sandbox-like scheme where visitors will spend their first seven days in resort-like accommodation before being allowed to travel across the country.
A similar scheme has been launched in Phuket, Thailand, with mixed success.
Alain Brun, chief executive of Cambodia Airports, recently said Cambodia’s three international airports were all operating in line with international safety standards and had clear measures to protect everyone, with rules applied effectively.
“We guarantee that passengers will arrive at safe airports," he said. "Travel today is safe in Cambodia, and that’s due to the amazing work the government has been doing. The airports are all ready to welcome back passengers.”
Cambodia is also in talks with India to bolster tourism between the countries but government sources have said Phnom Penh will initially focus on arrivals from China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
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