COMMENTARY: Holistic Response to Covid-19 Pandemic

AKP Phnom Penh, May 07, 2020 —

The combat against the Covid-19 pandemic is a long-term fight which requires strategic thinking and planning. Huge resources need to be injected. Constant policy adaptation and adjustment and a crisis leadership with foresight are required.

Dynamic policy debates at the national level are mounting with regard to making a hard choice between public health security and economic security, between the freedom of movement and the lockdown, and between selfish national interest and international moral responsibility. To save the world from prolonged crisis, we need to overcome these tradeoffs and move towards a holistic look at the problem. it is not a question of either or; it is a question of how can we work together to save lives and restore social and economic normalcy.

Cambodia has taken some measures to contain and mitigate the pandemic, including raising public awareness; introducing stringent movement control measures; undergoing strategic intervention for targeted groups (isolate, test, trace and treat the suspects and patients); providing economic support to the infected groups especially factory workers and micro, small and medium-sized entreprises (MSMEs); and leveraging international cooperation and partnership to address this global issue.

A national committee was formed in March 2020 under the stewardship of Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen. The committee is responsible for coordinating an inter-agency response to the crisis. While the mechanism is able to develop collective measures and mobilise resources, it lacks the participation from other stakeholders namely the private sector and civil society groups including grassroots organisations. Hence the government should innovate the existing mechanisms, particularly the Government-Private Sector forum and the Government-NGOs forum to build a whole-of-society approach to dealing with this systemic crisis.

Numerous press conferences held by the Prime Minister and senior officials from the Health Ministry have significantly contributed to raising public awareness and precaution against the epidemic disease. Local media, both traditional and non-traditional ones, has also played a critical role in communicating government policy to the public. Although there have been efforts from the government to educate the public about the risks of contraction, some people have not taken necessary precautionary measures such as washing hands with soaps, wearing masks, and observing social distancing.

The Ministry of Health has organised a weekly press conference with the presence of officials from the World Health Organisation in Cambodia. The messages have been relatively credible and consistent with appropriate context and content, clarity, and simplicity. However, there is still a lack of analysis of clusters. There is little information on what works and what does not work in the containment strategy, and there is no clear exit strategy. The public wishes to know the exit strategy- meaning when and how to get back to normal social and economic activities. This will help enhance public trust and confidence in the government.

Intervention Measures 

Some of the mitigation measures being implemented to slow down the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic include social distancing or safe physical distancing along with isolation and quarantining of cases. To break the chains of transmission, proactive testing is conducted to identify infected individuals. However, in some cases these soft measures do not work. Some countries have adopted “suppression measures” to reverse or squeeze the epidemic spread. These include strict lockdown or circuit breaking measures. These measures will last until vaccines can be developed.

Cambodia needs to prepare for potential second wave of epidemic outbreak. When there is a surge of infections, Cambodia needs to move from “mitigation” phase to “suppression” phase. The recently adopted emergency law will provide a legal framework for the government to introduce “suppression measures” when the epidemic spread is out of control or significantly disrupts economic and social life of the people.

The economic measures taken by the Cambodian government in response to the pandemic and its associated risks and impacts are quite fragmented and lack of clarity. The general public still do not know what economic measures have been introduced or are going to be introduced to cushion the devastating effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

AVI proposes the following economic policy proposals for Cambodia.

1. Domestic changes in strategic economic situations. The immediate intervention measures should focus on the “basic needs of vulnerable population, especially those in informal economic sectors and small business owners,” not on big businesses and middle-class people. Let the economy heal and soar up itself.

2. Cambodian-style “New Deal” to address rising unemployment and to re-employ jobless returnees from Thailand and other countries. Cambodia’s currency reserve, which is more than US$3 billion, can be used to employ at least one million Cambodian workers to build critical infrastructure projects to prepare for the future.

3. Tax policies and government subsidies must be in greater favour of protecting the most vulnerable sectors of the economy and low-income groups, especially micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers, factory workers and small service providers.

4. On food security, Cambodia’s food banks shall be upgraded as part of strategic reserve. In addition, public investment in fish farm, animal husbandry and other agricultural sectors must be scaled up to address rising food prices and difficult accessibility which have negatively affected the general poor population.

5. It is an opportunity to accelerate economic diversification while strategically aligning with China. Cambodia should quickly retool and aggressively lobby to attract investments from Japan and some Western countries which are shifting their production networks from China to other Southeast Asian countries. The West will likely reduce their economic dependency on China in the post-COVID-19 era. This trend is being propelled by rising anti-China sentiment in the West.

By Asian Vision Institute (AVI)