Talk Of The Town: Re-opening The Economy

It has been a few months since the first confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in Cambodia on 27 January, 2020. Since then much has been said and reported about the biological, social and geo-political evolution of the coronavirus.

Countries across the globe have gone into various forms of lockdowns, mandated or otherwise. Schools and businesses are on shutdown order. Social gatherings are a thing of the past. The Internet has practically become one of the most – if not the most – essential utilities for hundreds of millions of people as work and socializing have gone virtual. Life as we knew it has basically been upended. When all is said and done, talks will evolve around the “before” and “after”  of COVID-19.

As far as experts are concerned, after this pandemic, there is no such thing as going back to business as usual. The havoc that this disease has caused is so unprecedented that getting back on our feet will most likely be a series of trials and errors, just as it has been in terms of the local and global responses to try to contain – if not eliminate – it. And now, as governments are trying to bring their economies back from the brink of total collapse, questions on when and how to do so are beginning to rule the local chatters and global conversations.

For countries like Cambodia, completely closing up shops is simply unrealistic. The national bank has limited control on capital flow and the larger macro-economics due to the dollarization nature of the Cambodian economy. Despite the government’s $100-million loan scheme for prioritized small and medium enterprises, scores of businesses are struggling to make ends meet. Countless number of people are in debt and could lose – if not already having lost – their jobs, further jeopardizing their livelihoods and those of their extended families. Still unaccounted for is the toll COVID-19 has taken on the mental health of the Cambodian people and the stress it has placed on the public support systems that are often fragile.

So of course everyone is eager to get back to work, to re-open businesses, to make a living again. Signs that the country is contemplating this re-opening are becoming clear. The Minister for Health has suggested the Minister for Education submit a formal request to the government to re-open schools. Even without official uplifting of the ban, some local bars and entertainment venues have already announced their plans for a post-shutdown soft launch. In spite of the government’s urge for the populace to remain vigilant, continue practicing physical distancing, minimize social gatherings and implement self-quarantine/get tested after potential perceived exposure, streets are getting crowded again.

How should Cambodia go about this?

So how should Cambodia go about doing this? After all, even countries as developed as the U.S. and those in Europe do not seem to have much of a clear roadmap on the “how-to” themselves. And concerns of the second wave of infections are taking over Singapore and China as you are reading this article.

Clearly, there are no specific answers – or well tested mechanisms – to how Cambodia should proceed to reopen its economy, but some factors are worth considering:

  • Boost testing as much as possible as this will give the government and relevant agencies a clearer image of the COVID-19 situation and better idea on how to plan for the re-opening.
  • Aim for concise, consistent and transparent messaging around the re-opening. Hearsays and rumors, especially when there is a lack of clarification from authorized personnel, can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication on what can be re-opened and when.
  • Ensure that critical infrastructures, including emergency health responses and public safety measures, are in place prior to the re-opening – ready for rollout at a moment’s notice – so that any fallout can be attended to swiftly and effectively.
  • Clearly categorize the types of services and establishments that can be re-opened. This includes defining what is considered essential and non-essential, for instance.
  • Prioritize service/establishment groups and allow for their re-opening in stages. This should (1) enable the government to closely monitor the progress and any potential negative impacts (including community outbreaks), (2) provide some buffer in between stages to soften any unexpected blows to the re-opening plan, and (3) give everyone sufficient time to get acclimated to this new reality.
  • Continue stringent reinforcement of public health measures, such as physical distancing, mask wearing and hand washing.
  • Collect and make use of as much data as ethically possible to inform the decisions on the timing and mechanisms of the re-opening. This is because Cambodia, like other countries that contemplate getting back to business as unusual, is essentially writing the rulebook as it goes. Therefore, the more verified information it can work with in real-time, the better.

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No one knows how this will turn out, but with everything at stake, Cambodia does not seem to have much of a choice – or even the luxury – to afford slow economic outputs over an extended period of time. All eyes will be on the government on how it plans to restart the economic engines and prepare itself for any potential backfires.


About the author: Ratana Sopha has been professionally active in the public health sector since 2013, being involved in HIV/AIDS work for the past 7 years and recently moving into the field of maternal and child health and nutrition. Outside of his career, Ratana is an avid observer of the nexus of communication and technology, social justice, human-centered designs, and environmental stewardship. He enjoys reading think-pieces, socio-political commentaries and fictions. When the creative mojo strikes, he savors in writing, photography, interior design, and a bit of fashion.

Please note that the above only constitutes personal opinion. When In Phnom Penh disclaims any and all liability associated, whether in contract or in tort (including strict liability and negligence), for any loss or damage.

Photo by the Bangkok Post

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