Pheang Dariny is going into lockdown with just two cans of fish and five eggs left. The 27-year-old, who works in a garment factory in Phnom Penh, was already struggling, as factories have closed to stop the spread of the disease. “I have not gotten my salary yet,” she said. “We don’t work, so we don’t get money.”
After a surge in Covid-19 cases in mid April, with more than 500 reported per day, Cambodia’s government announced that it would extend a two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and its neighboring Ta Khmao district by another fortnight. Cambodia’s outbreak has claimed at least 79 lives since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 9,500 people have been infected. Following April’s spike in cases, areas in the country with the highest rates of infection were declared “red zones,” in which people are only allowed to leave their homes in emergencies. More than 4,500 households are in the stricter control zones.
The new measures were so sudden that they caught many people unprepared. The government has ordered all local markets and countless makeshift and street markets, where most Cambodians purchase their daily groceries, to close. As desperate families pleaded on social media for food, the ministry of commerce launched its own solution to the goods shortages — an online marketplace where locked-down people can buy necessities — called, simply “Ministry of Commerce Online Shopping”. But critics say that the marketplace is an inappropriate way of getting food to people who are now mostly out of money, and who never shop for groceries online anyway.
The new emergency marketplace app displays just seven items: fish sauce, soy sauce, instant noodles, canned fish, water, rice, and preserved radish. In theory, customers can order through a website or an app and have their items delivered within 24 hours, paying through ABA Bank, a local app, or by cash on delivery.
“It’s not effective,” Ou Virak, President of Future Forum, a think tank dedicated to public policy issues, said. The marketplace was rushed out, the menu is too limited, and it is a poor replacement for the street vendors who have now been put out of business by the government’s new restrictions. “Everybody loses. No one gets anything from these [measures],” he said.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has pushed the country’s officials to use online platforms to communicate with citizens in recent years . Hun Sen often uses his own Facebook page to announce government decisions. Authorities from the top down to local districts now have a social media presence but lack systems and resources to deliver effective public services.
Their online efforts often seem more performative than effective. Officials have organized photo opportunities to show the public their efforts to alleviate people’s suffering. When they hand out food aid, they present it as charity from individual leaders, rather than the government.
As the country entered its most recent lockdown, the government set up a Telegram group for people to apply for emergency food aid. As of April 25, more than 49,000 people had joined it to beg for food. Few, however, appear to have received a response to their appeals.
The authorities have also relied on oppressive measures to enforce the lockdown. New laws passed in March allow authorities to arrest people who criticize the government’s Covid-19 response. At least 30 people have been detained, mostly for comments online.
However, few people from the garment worker and construction industry communities — poor communities whose work has been most affected by lockdowns, and whose workplaces have been centers of infection — who spoke to Rest of World had even heard of the government’s digital marketplace, and those that had couldn’t afford it.
“I have not seen the app,” said Kang Dara Reach, a construction worker who has already been in quarantine with his wife and his five-month old baby boy for more than two weeks, after cases were found in the area where he lives. “You called me and told me, now I know about it.”
Food in his area is very expensive, he told Rest of World, and he hasn’t been paid in a while — his boss is also trapped in quarantine, and can’t pay what he owes.
“[It’s] not only that we don’t have money to buy food, but now electricity is very expensive as we all stay at home all the time,” Nem Pav, a 27-year-old in quarantine said.
After speaking to 10 people in the Red Zones, Rest of World was unable to find anyone who had used the online marketplace.
Seang Thay, a spokesperson from the ministry of commerce, said that people were ordering food online, while others were buying from booths set up by the government. The government has said that it will help those who are affected by the lockdowns with food and covering commodity bills.
Khun Tharo, program manager at the labor rights group Central, said that communities in the Red Zones need a lot more help. “During these two week quarantines, there is no clear method from the government to assist them,” he said.
Tharo said that instead of selling food online, the government should be giving necessities out as aid. “We’ve seen many poor communities that face difficulties. We have seen that the government‘s donations have reached some destinations, but it does not respond quickly enough to the groups that plead for [help].”