PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Thea is worried that he will go hungry. He hasn’t left his home in Phnom Penh since April 15, when Cambodia’s government imposed a citywide lockdown to curb the country’s first large coronavirus outbreak.
“The lockdown was so rushed that I didn’t even have time to get extra food. We have hardly any food left, but I cannot leave my house because there are so many police outside,” said Thea, a 40-year-old garment worker who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used because he feared government reprisals.
As Western countries gradually conquer the virus through mass vaccination, the pandemic is flaring up again in some poorer regions of the world, including Southeast Asia, despite inoculation efforts.
In Cambodia, which had avoided the worst of the pandemic, a surge in cases has led authorities to resort to an extreme lockdown that some residents say has pushed them toward eviction or starvation. On Friday, officials announced 558 new cases, bringing the total to 18,179 with 114 deaths. While the government eased restrictions in some places this week, high-risk areas remain under lockdown.
The most draconian measures apply to neighborhoods deemed “red zones,” where no one is permitted to leave home, not even to buy food. Officers patrol the streets at all hours and are authorized to fine or arrest anyone moving around without a permit. In some cases, police officers have beaten people with sticks for violating the rules — punishment the government considers “necessary” to enforce stay-at-home orders, according to Phay Siphan, a government spokesman.
Thea and his wife live in a small rented room in Tuol Sangke I, a designated red zone in the capital.
Although the government has begun distributing food to cooped-up residents, Thea said he and many of his friends who are also living in red zones have yet to receive a single donation since the lockdown went into effect.
“I heard that some people have received food, but the government is not helping people equally,” said Thea. “When I talk to my friends, they are in a similar position but we don’t know how to ask for help.”
Those who have received food donations say they have been given small servings of rice, canned fish and sauce — hardly enough to feed one person, let alone a family.
With nowhere else to turn, some residents have begun posting their anguish on social media, calling for the government to do more.
“Workers are desperate. Some are posting pictures of their small kids who are starving for food. And that type of image, I think, makes the government really embarrassed,” said Khun Tharo, program manager with the Cambodia-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, which is supporting unemployed workers during the lockdown. “One worker posted a critical message on Facebook and the district authority came to her home and asked her to delete it.”
Despite the mounting despair, the government says all vulnerable communities are being adequately cared for.
“We have given food to everybody. No one has died from starvation yet,” said Phay Siphan, the government spokesman. “These people are lying. They are overdramatizing the situation and spreading lies on social media.”
The government insists that the lockdown has been effective in curbing the outbreak, even as cases continue to rise. In the past week, daily counts have neared 1,000, more than double the 382 total number of cases confirmed in Cambodia in all of 2020.
While the case count is concerning, Li Ailan, the World Health Organization representative to Cambodia, said it is too early to rule on the efficacy of the lockdown efforts.
“Lockdown would not bring an immediate effect, we knew that, because of the incubation period of the virus,” she said. “However, now that we are in the third week, we are hoping that the lockdown will start to bring some effects.”
To support unemployed workers during the lockdown, the government promised one-off $75 cash payments to families in quarantine. But it halted the program after 10 days, claiming that the money would instead be redistributed to support food donations and vaccination efforts, leaving many unemployed workers with no money to pay their rent and electricity bills.
Khoen, a single mother and garment worker living in Steung Meanchey III, another red zone in Phnom Penh, is one of the few to have received a stimulus payment. But having been out of work for three weeks, she said the money was not enough to support herself and her children.
A loosening of restrictions in low-risk areas allowed some residents to return to work on Friday. But for red-zone workers like Khoen and many others employed in the garment industry — a cornerstone of Cambodia’s export-driven economy — there is no word on when they can go back to their jobs.
“I am scared because I do not have enough to pay rent. I want my landlord to understand that if she evicts me, I have nowhere else to go,” said Khoen, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, for fear of government reprisals. “Even though we are running out of food, not having money scares me more.”
As the lockdown gradually eases, many families are hopeful that they will soon be able to obtain food. But with coronavirus cases climbing, there is always the worry that restrictions could be reinstated.
For those like Thea, still in a red zone, the anxiety is especially high.
“If the lockdown is extended any longer, I don’t know how we will survive,” he said.