Updated: Feb 16
More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, with the majority of Europe still in some state of lockdown, in comparison, southeast Asia remains seemingly much more in control of the situation. Cambodia, and its neighbours, continue to report relatively low infection rates. Astoundingly, as of the February 10th 2021, Cambodia stands at 474 reported cases since the beginning of the pandemic, no deaths and a current average of 1 case per day [Ministry of Health].
What differentiates countries from southeast Asia, such as Cambodia, from other countries in the Western world? With a fairly weak health care system, a large outbreak would have had devastating consequences. Prevention and control measures aimed at preventing the introduction of cases from abroad and the proliferation of cases from within, as announced by the country's Ministry of Health, together with several factors were in Cambodia’s favour.
Firstly, the tropical and humid climate is not conducive to rapid transmission of COVID-19. Added to this the lack of public transport- most people travel in the open air, and live and work in well-ventilated spaces, which we know is important in reducing incidents where transmission can occur. Furthermore, there is a relatively small, and importantly, young percentage of the population living in urban areas; we know that age is a considerable factor in COVID mortality.
All in all then, upon investigation from the information available, Cambodia looks ready to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a population that is relatively unscathed. But as time goes on, researchers have started to look at ‘second-hand’ casualties of the pandemic; that is, casualties not directly related to the illness itself, but as a result of the economic and social impact of the measures necessary to limit the spread of the disease.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned of the effects of lockdown on world poverty, and the Cambodia Ministry of Finance estimates poverty will increase from 11% to 14% in the Kingdom. This is a very real threat in less developed nations like Cambodia, where there is already large disparity and 35% of people live below the poverty line.
An important report commissioned by the UNDP on the effect of the pandemic on Cambodia’s Human Development Index (HDI) estimates that the drastic decline the pandemic has caused, essentially sets Cambodia back by four years. The report goes on to state:
‘The simulation results illustrate the dire effects of Covid-19 on HDI across the four countries, with Cambodia being hit more severely in aggregate, especially in terms of education.’ [ UNDP, 2020].
In the same story as other nations, school closures were very much a part of the Cambodian government’s response to the pandemic, for several months in March and also in December. Whilst this had an advantageous effect on community transmission, a heavy price was paid by children who lost their access to schooling. In a country where many do not have consistent or reliable access to the internet or online resources, many were left with few alternatives. Despite the government’s efforts, such as radio and televised education programs for those without internet access, this can never fully replace valuable time on a pedagogically-backed course in an educational setting.
The mission of our NGO is to give women and girls vital access to education; we know that it cannot be underestimated the importance of this being achieved for their personal and professional development. Our educational platform particularly has the goal of being able to reach women and girls living in rural areas, where the drop out rate from school is much higher and internet access much weaker.
In June 2020, the Ministry of Education announced the opening of a new centre for digital and distance learning in one of the capital’s high schools, seeking to advance virtual learning. Minister Hang Chuon Naran acknowledged the importance of digital learning platforms in responding to the problems brought about by the pandemic. They are crucial in allowing young people to catch up on what they might otherwise miss, and vital for their mental well-being in this time of upheaval. However, a system is needed that benefits all children, not just those who live in cities.
Statistically, girls already have an increased drop out rate over boys. Girls also face more dangers socially, trafficking and prostitution, while illegal in Cambodia, are common. UNICEF estimate that as many as 37% of those trafficked for sexual exploitation are children. The solution to all this begins with a quality education that offers quality tools to women of the future of Cambodia, preparing and empowering them for a quality labour market. Thus not only will Cambodia's problem of girls and women be reduced, but in turn the country's economy will increase and improve.
When girls already face so many challenges to achieving this, the dire economic effects of the pandemic, combined with months of missed schooling, points to a potential looming crisis in the future if action is not taken. It has never been more important that we safeguard their futures.
On the other hand, if lessons are taken from the terrible consequences of this pandemic, real progress could be made to take steps towards creating a future where women and girls are given the opportunities that they deserve. If more effort is made to expand distance learning programs to that they reach all children, not just a few, those most at risk of being left behind can be saved.
6. Communicable Disease Control Department, Ministry of Health Cambodia <https://covid19-map.cdcmoh.gov.kh/>