They were once luxury places. Now these are Grim Covid camps.

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Patients sit in crowded ambulances before passing through metal barriers. Once inside, they are given a number, like C07-22, a thin blanket and a bed sheet, which is supposed to be a mosquito net. Lights shine around the clock for constant camera surveillance. Each person receives four bottles of water a day and three small meals.

The Cambodian government, in the race to contain a raging coronavirus outbreak, has set up a system of forced quarantine centers that patients say look more like makeshift prisons than hospitals. No one is allowed to leave until they test negative – and most people are stranded for at least 10 days.

Cambodia was a Covid success story until a few months ago. Out of 500 cases and no deaths at the end of February, there were 72,104 cases and 1,254 deaths by Saturday – with nearly 900 new cases per day and nearly 70% of deaths occurring in the previous month.

The sprawling quarantine centers are the product of an overwhelmed and underfunded health system, a recent Covid deaths shake up and an authoritarian tendency that often turns into a strong security apparatus in times of unrest. The Cambodian government has gone from nonchalance to closures to repression.

In April, a law has been passed who threatened with 20 years in prison anyone found to have intentionally spread the virus. During a recent curfew, security forces patrolled dark neighborhoods with bamboo canes.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, a strongman who has held power for 36 years, has thundered against anyone who has escaped government treatment, escaped quarantine or violated the isolation of their home.

Phnom Penh health authorities have confirmed this month that 21 Covid ‘care centers’ had been set up in the capital, including public hospitals and various large sites that have been converted to accommodate the growing number of patients.

Ou Vandine, a doctor who is secretary of state at the health ministry, said she did not know how many patients were in the state-run quarantine camps, but that authorities were doing all they could to “Make the conditions in the camps livable”. “

Officials rarely talk about the quarantine centers, but they are impossible to hide.

In Koh Pich, a generally exclusive area which means ‘Diamond Island’, a former event space has been transformed into a Establishment of 1,800 beds with patients camped in crumbling auditoriums, all living on single beds about an arm’s length apart.

Many families are inside, with babies crying.

In the suburb of Sen Sok, a gargantuan wedding venue usually reserved for lavish parties organized by the Cambodian elite is now equipped to accommodate 1,500 people and is adorned with clotheslines, piles of garbage and containment fences.

And the sports fields of the Olympic Stadium, a 1960s masterpiece by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann, now resemble an industrial-scale medical center, with mobile barracks, isolation facilities and medical facilities. doctors in protective suits against hazardous materials.

The representative of the World Health Organization in Cambodia, Dr Li Ailan, said the surge in Covid cases in Cambodia was caused by new, more infectious variants as well as a mixture of pandemic fatigue and false belief that vaccines prevent infection. She said there were “pros and cons” to the government’s methods.

“While it is important to keep people with HIV in quarantine centers, it is just as important to provide them with effective treatment,” she said. “Quarantine centers have a defined number of people living in each of them, while people with severe or critical symptoms are treated in referral hospitals. “

Medical treatments at the Koh Pich center were administered by young technicians wearing face shields and hazmat suits, who handed out packs of cold medicine and regularly sprayed patients with a disinfectant that smelled of tequila. .

Cambodia is at a critical stage in its response to Covid-19, with outbreaks in factories, prisons, markets and small communities, said Dr Li. “Vaccines are an important tool in the fight against Covid -19, but they won’t end the pandemic. “

Cambodia’s immunization program has been hailed for reaching 6.3 million of the country’s 16 million people. Yet many patients at the Koh Pich quarantine center had been vaccinated and were asymptomatic.

Thon Nika, a 41-year-old shift supervisor at a local garment factory, was fully vaccinated in May, but tested positive at work and spent two weeks, without any symptoms of Covid, in the Koh quarantine center Pich.

What to know about Covid-19 booster injections

The FDA has cleared booster shots for millions of recipients of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna beneficiaries who are eligible for a recall include people 65 years of age and older and young adults at high risk of severe Covid-19 due to medical conditions or their workplace. Eligible Pfizer and Moderna beneficiaries may receive a booster at least six months after their second dose. All Johnson & Johnson recipients will be eligible for a second injection at least two months after the first.

Yes. The FDA has updated its clearances to allow medical providers to boost people with a different vaccine than the one they originally received, a strategy known as “mix and match.” Whether you have received Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, or Pfizer-BioNTech, you may receive a booster of any other vaccine. Regulators have not recommended any vaccine over another as a booster. They have also remained silent on whether it is best to stick to the same vaccine when possible.

The CDC said the conditions that qualify a person for a booster shot include: hypertension and heart disease; diabetes or obesity; cancer or blood disorders; weakened immune system; chronic lung, kidney or liver disease; dementia and some disabilities. Pregnant women and current and former smokers are also eligible.

The FDA has cleared the boosters for workers whose work puts them at high risk of exposure to potentially infectious people. The CDC says this group includes: emergency medical workers; education workers; food and agricultural workers; manufacturing workers; correctional workers; workers in the US postal service; public transport workers; employees of grocery stores.

Yes. The CDC says the Covid vaccine can be given regardless of the timing of other vaccines, and many pharmacy websites allow people to schedule a flu shot along with a booster dose.

“The vaccine does not protect us, and there are a lot more cases than people say,” she said. “I watch over 10 ambulances come and go every day. And not only in this center, but also in many other treatment centers. “

The health ministry denied that the centers are overcrowded. Those who ended up there were tested at their place of work, went to a local public clinic for screening, or were ordered to go to a state-run testing site, where a positive result leads directly to a quarantine center.

“We do not trust the information available or the data provided to us,” said Khun Tharo, a seasoned activist and program director for the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights. He said more than 700 factories had closed since last year, leaving more than 500,000 garment workers in the teeth of the pandemic.

“The government has put the economy first, not the safety of workers,” he said. “Workers who are afraid to go to an exposed factory or to a processing center are under pressure to return to work. They have no choice, if they do not return to work, they will have no income to survive.

Phal Lot, a frail 62-year-old Khmer Rouge survivor who lives with her children, arrived at the Koh Pich quarantine center with a clunky old phone, to call her family and the clothes on her back. Young women helped her tie up her bed sheet, which prevented the glaring lights from entering.

Phal Lot is one of the generation that suffered from malnutrition and other horrors under Pol Pot’s rule and long years of war and occupation. As the country moves closer to what officials are calling a “Red line” in the pandemic, the fears associated with that time resurfaced.

“Deploying security forces to deal with what the Cambodian government considers a crisis – health or otherwise – is the only way we know how to do it,” said Ou Virak, political analyst and founder of the Forum of the future, a think tank from Phnom Penh. “It doesn’t seem at all strange to a country shaken by a post-conflict era. Much has changed over the past decades, but not the people and the infrastructure of power. “

The willingness to comply with the government’s harsh and seemingly ad hoc demands could be ingrained in the psyche of many Cambodians, he said. Not everyone is bitter about being in the quarantine centers, and a certain camaraderie is born.

Each person receives a Covid test after eight days indoors and the results are provided on day 10. Each time a patient is positive, they are given an additional three days in the camp. Every day at 6 a.m., a loudspeaker announces the names of those authorized to go out. Cheers erupt, dances ensue, and additional water bottles are handed to the closest person who is still waiting for their name to be called.

Rathana Phin contributed reporting.


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