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Radio Free Asia

Sinovac Doses Arrive in Cambodia to Little Public Fanfare, Some Doubts

2021-03-26 -- The latest batch of China's controversial coronavirus vaccination arrived in Cambodia Friday as the country confirmed its eighth death from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, and continues to grapple with its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

The 1.5 million doses of Sinopharm's Sinovac vaccination, purchased by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government for around U.S. $15 million, were delivered to Cambodia as the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the country rose to nearly 2,000.

Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia Wang Wentian announced during a reception ceremony for the vaccines that China had sold the doses to Phnom Penh as part of a "special deal" and said he hopes the injections will help protect the country from the coronavirus. He said China will continue to assist Cambodia with vaccine supplies if the outbreak worsens, adding that there are currently more than 60 countries using the Sinovac injection.

Cambodia's Finance Secretary of State Vongsey Visoth told reporters at the ceremony that the government is seeking to buy additional vaccines from India and the U.S. but lauded the country's special ties to China that had allowed for Friday's delivery.

"The solid steel relationship between Cambodia and China played a vital role in securing vaccine for our country in a timely manner," he said.

While Hun Sen did not take part in the reception ceremony, he posted a comment on his Facebook account saying that Cambodia is in negotiations to purchase around 4 million doses of Sinovac as part of a government push to vaccinate 10 million people, or more than two-thirds of the country's population.

Cambodia marked its first official death from COVID-19 on March 11, a year to the day after the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled the coronavirus a global pandemic. Since then, eight people have died as a result of the disease, with the eighth death recorded on Friday.

While Cambodia has remained relatively unscathed by the virus, it reported a daily record last week of 105 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the country's total number of infections to 1,430—nearly triple that of a month ago when the latest outbreak was first detected.

Rollbacks on democracy, including the disbanding of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), that led Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to win the country's election in a landslide in 2018 have led Western nations to increasingly shun Phnom Penh in recent years, while Chinese influence has grown in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

While Beijing has showered aid on Cambodia, many Cambodians worry about China's increasing presence in their country's affairs and have even expressed wariness over the quality of its vaccines.

On Friday, political analyst Kim Sok told RFA's Khmer Service that the Sinovac vaccine doesn't measure up to vaccines from the West that have earned the recognition of the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Hun Sen's government should have spent money on vaccines recognized by the WHO," he said. "People have more trust in those vaccines."

No time for quarantine

Meanwhile, residents living in areas locked down as part of a bid to restrict the spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia urged the government Friday to provide special aid packages to help them during the outbreak.

Many Cambodians are now struggling to pay their debts and meet the costs of rent, utility bills, and gasoline amid Cambodia's latest outbreak of COVID-19 after an already year-long shutdown of the economy that killed the tourism and entertainment industries.

A villager from Siem Reap province named Yim Sogna told RFA that authorities in his district began enforcing the lockdown about a week ago and said he no longer earns an income. He accused the government of failing to address the needs of villagers.

"How can we afford the cost of living for a 14-day quarantine," he asked. "We've spent the money we made, but we need to pay the bank too. I call on the government to help the people."

Another villager in the seat of Sihanoukville province, who is also living in a locked down area, told RFA that work had dried up and he is in risk of defaulting on a loan he took to buy a motor taxi, and pay for his rent and utilities.

"My situation is getting worse," he said. "The government must intervene with the banks to suspend loan repayments for a few months."

Ministry of Finance Spokesman Meas Soksensan refused to comment when contacted by RFA.

Ny Sokha of local rights group Adhoc told RFA that the government needs to not only pay attention to fighting the coronavirus, but also the living standards of the people.

He urged the government to release a stimulus package to subsidize those who have lost their incomes.

"The government must resolve this posthaste," he said.

'Uneven recovery'

On Thursday, the World Bank issued a report which said that more than a year into the pandemic, the economies of East and Asia and the Pacific are facing a "markedly uneven recovery."

According to the Bank, only China and Vietnam are experiencing a V-shaped rebound where output has already surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

"In the other major economies, output remained on average around 5 percent below pre-pandemic levels," the report said.

"Economic performance has depended on the effectiveness of virus containment, the ability to take advantage of the revival of international trade, and the capacity of governments to provide fiscal and monetary support."

On Friday, Cambodia's Finance Minister Meas Soksensan told RFA that the government had come to the same conclusion as the Bank, acknowledging that it has been "difficult" for Cambodia's economy to grow during the pandemic.

"The findings are normal because of the impact of the coronavirus," he said, adding that Cambodia "cannot hope to achieve the same economic growth as before the pandemic."

"I hope that the global economy will recover because some countries have already developed vaccines and are now supplying them to the world."

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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