The Cambodia-Vietnam boundary extends for approximately 1,158 km (720 mi) between the Gulf of Thailand and the tripoint with Laos. The two countries also share five international border crossings anyone with valid travel documents can use: Bavet (KHM) – Mộc Bài (VNM), Kaam Samnor (KHM) – Vĩnh Xương (VNM), Phnom Den (KHM) – Tịnh Biên (VNM), Prek Chak (KHM) – Xa Xia (VNM), and Le Thanh (KHM) – O Yadao (VNM).
Before the pandemic, hourly bus and boat trips pass through those border points to travel to the other side which benefited both countries and their people for centuries, including international travelers looking for cheaper and more adventure-filled alternatives to cross from Vietnam to Cambodia and vice versa.
However, the Kingdom stands at a crossroads after the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia has issued a stark warning as the country grapples with its worst coronavirus outbreak to date.
“This outbreak is different from previous outbreaks in Cambodia. The B.1.1.7 variant spreads more easily between people and can cause serious illness. Many countries with strong health systems have been overwhelmed by this variant. We need to ensure the same doesn’t happen to Cambodia,” said Dr. Li Ailan, WHO Representative to Cambodia.
For more than a year since the pandemic erupted, Cambodia has prided itself as one of the very few countries posing zero fatality and low infection rate. But on March 11, the country reported its first official death.
The outbreak, known as the “February 20 community event” named for the day of its discovery, which involves the more infectious UK variant, is believed to have originated from four Chinese nationals who allegedly bribed their way out of hotel quarantine.
Prior to the outbreak, the number of confirmed cases stood at just 484, with 470 recoveries.
“We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of COVID-19. Despite our best efforts, we are struggling to control the virus. New cases occur every day and we are racing against the virus. Unless we can stop the outbreak, Cambodia’s health system is at high risk of being overwhelmed, which would have disastrous consequences,” the WHO representative said.
Cambodia's notoriously underfunded public health system is now being pushed to its limits. Health authorities have converted a defunct luxury hotel into a 500-room coronavirus hospital. It also nationalized and repurposed a private hospital to treat infections, Nikkei Asia reported.
As per the WHO, the Kingdom’s patient tally is now at 4,696 with 33 confirmed deaths, the outbreak is Cambodia's worst of the pandemic so far. It has spread to seven of 25 provinces and threatens Cambodia's earlier success story in containing COVID-19.
The outbreak comes as its health authorities move forward with a vaccine rollout. The first jabs began in February with a batch of Sinopharm doses donated by Beijing. In March, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was among the first to receive an AstraZeneca shot supplied via the United Nations-backed COVAX program.
On the other hand, as of today, 2,714 cases and 35 deaths were recorded in Vietnam. And for almost a month now, the country has not recorded any community transmissions. However, the number of imported cases is increasing gradually, with many of them returnees from Cambodia.
The fact that many Vietnamese do business in Cambodia and the number of people crossing back and forth, legally and illegally, is high is causing the Vietnamese health officials to worry.
Clearly and unfortunately, Cambodia’s situation is exposing Vietnam and the rest of its population to danger.
Senior advisor to the Health Ministry's public health emergency operations center Tran Dac Phu told VN Express, "the border between Vietnam and Cambodia is really long, not to mention the sea and air routes. It should be noted that controlling travel by sea is truly difficult.
The senior advisor further expressed his worries that the infection risk is high and “it is essential that we tighten control over border gates and all small paths that people use to enter Vietnam. It is possible that community outbreaks could re-emerge in the country if someone sneaks in illegally with the virus.”
A few weeks ago, after two Vietnamese who were positive for the virus illegally returned home through the southern coast, Vietnam suffered a series of infections. Both of them got back to Vietnam from Cambodia on a fishing vessel that arrived in Phu Quoc Island.
In December, a man who tested positive traveled from Myanmar to Thailand by truck and then got into Cambodia on another truck before sneaking into the south of the country. Luckily, his mother reported him and the infection chain was stopped just in time. Because of his reckless actions, three of the eight people crossing the border with him got the virus.
Cases like that, as simple as going back to your home country, can cause a lot of trouble to the majority.
Vietnam’s safety protocol puts all people entering the country from abroad must be quarantined for 14 days, during which they will be tested at least twice.
Senior Advisor Phu is asking the Vietnamese citizens to proactively report to the authorities if they encounter illegal entrants, those eluding checkpoints to avoid quarantine, or come to learn of any person sneaking into the country without submitting to safety protocol.
So far, Vietnam has inoculated around 60,000 of its citizens with British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca. The country is also expected to begin the mass production of a locally-made vaccine, Nanocovax, in August once the three-phase human trial is completed in May.