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Coronavirus

Corruption threatens Cambodia's COVID success as cluster spreads

Outbreak linked to Chinese nationals bribing guards to leave quarantine early

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said the situation was "very bad," adding he was hopeful it could be controlled.   © AP

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia is scrambling to control its worst COVID-19 outbreak since the pandemic began.

Detected on Saturday, the new cluster is mostly among Chinese nationals in the capital, Phnom Penh, and stood at 76 infections as of Monday. The figure, expected to rise, represents a significant chunk of the country's current total of 568 cases.

Authorities have locked down some two dozen hotspots around the city, closed several schools and instituted a "limited ban" on sports. They have also ordered entertainment venues to shut, with the outbreak's epicenter identified as a nightclub.

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday said the situation was "very bad," adding he was hopeful it could be controlled.

Cambodia, a country of 15.5 million, has been recognized internationally for its handling of the coronavirus. It is yet to record a virus related death and earlier this month began a vaccine rollout with Sinopharm shots donated by Beijing.

The most recent outbreak, however, has highlighted how endemic corruption in the country poses a threat to its COVID-19 success story.

The cluster has been linked to four Chinese nationals who allegedly bribed two security guards to leave hotel quarantine before finishing the mandated 14-day stay, according to the Khmer Times. The newspaper reported that the security guards have been detained. The escape is not the first. Authorities recently raised fines for quarantine absconders, as well as anyone found to have helped them leave, following several cases of people fleeing.

Cambodian anti-corruption campaigner San Chey blamed weak oversight, which he said was dangerous during a pandemic.

"Poor monitoring is leading to possible corruption," said Chey, head of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in Cambodia.

The outbreak also comes in the wake of a COVID-related corruption scandal involving a local police chief stationed near Cambodia's border with Thailand.

Now a former official, the man faces charges for allegedly aiding smugglers moving people illegally across the international boundary.

Prior to the outbreak in the capital, migrant workers returning from Thailand were Cambodia's largest source of infections.

The case of border corruption came to national attention when the accused was singled out by Hun Sen, who called the actions unforgivable.

Border closures have pushed many returnees to seek out brokers to smuggle them home. One 27-year-old migrant worker who spoke to Nikkei Asia by phone said he paid about $100 to re-enter Cambodia after the factory where he worked in Thailand shut in December.

"I went through an illegal checkpoint," said the worker named Lay, who asked to withhold his surname.

"It cost me a lot of money. I need to pay 10 times more than what I would normally pay... the brokers told us that they needed to take a different path and pay the police."

Graft is common in Cambodia, which is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International's corruption perceptions index.

Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International in Cambodia, said the consequences of corruption were made more severe by pandemic.

"The incidents involving the police officer at the border and the security guard at the hotel reaffirmed that corruption and bribery can harm public health and can potentially kill," he said, calling for an impartial investigation.

"The consequence is significant as it poses threats to public health and affects daily economic activities of ordinary citizens."

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