02/03/2020, 18.44
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Calm returns to Cambodia after coronavirus-induced panic

After one case has been reported in the country, people rushed to get a mask. After two days, the panic ebbed following the government’s information campaign. PIME missionary notes that Cambodians do not resent the Chinese.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) – The fear caused by the first coronavirus case confirmed in Cambodia has lessened, this according to Fr Giovanni Tulino, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

 A sense of panic had developed following the outbreak in Wuhan, the capital of the Chinese province of Hubei, which sparked a world-wide health emergency,

The clergyman has been in Cambodia for five years, in Ta Khmau, a town some 15 kilometres south of the capital in the Diocese of Phnom Penh.

On 27 January, Cambodian authorities announced the first coronavirus case in the country, a Chinese national living in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, capital of the south-western province of Preah Sihanouk.

Together with its region, the city has experienced fast economic growth and a construction boom thanks to a constant inflow of Chinese capital.

Chinese interests in fact control about 90 per cent of local hotels, casinos, flats, restaurants and massage parlours. In just a few years, the city has become one of Asia’s top gambling resorts.

"The only case of infection was reported in a region where the Chinese community is very large,” Fr Tulino said. “For two days after the government's announcement, fear spread across the country.

“People started wearing protective masks everywhere with vendors on street corners handing them out. It was real panic. Eventually, the Health Ministry provided information material on the virus, explaining the nature and methods of transmission.”

 “One of the things that reassured people the most is the fact that the humid climate of this period (the temperature is almost always above 25 C°) hinders the spread of the disease.

“The government repeated its message several times to dispel fears, and decided against closing the country's borders to visitors from China. Closing borders could mean the collapse of the economy,” said the missionary.

“At present, the situation is back to normal. The panic of the first days is no more. Now people go about their business without wearing masks.

“I have not noticed among locals any resentment or discrimination against the Chinese, who are blamed for the outbreak elsewhere. Even in the worse moments, no one stopped going to shops or restaurants.”

After the first case was confirmed, the Cambodian civil aviation authority agency cancelled all flights to and from Wuhan following a Chinese ban on air travel to the capital of Hubei.

Still, since the beginning of the crisis, some 3,000 Chinese tourists have travelled to Cambodia.

In the latter however, some have called for the cancellation of all flights from China because of the possibility that the virus has spread across China.

Government critics are saying that the authorities are downplaying the potential impact of the virus for political reasons, which is what Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen did last Friday.

“There is no need to stop flights from China because doing so would kill our economy and destroy ties with China,” Hun said.

During his live televised press conference in the capital Phnom Penh, the veteran politician (in power since 1984) urged Cambodians to refrain from discriminating against Chinese people.

What is more, he said he had “no plan to evacuate our diplomats – we will keep them there to help resolve the issues on the ground.”

After expressing disappointment that so many Cambodian students had returned home from China, he warned that Beijing might not “give any more scholarships” to Cambodians.

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