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Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is accustomed to scathing criticism from the international community for his human rights record.
But last week, he was widely praised when he welcomed a cruise liner that had been stranded at sea for more than two weeks amid fears passengers on board may be carrying the deadly new coronavirus. The ship, with more than 2,000 people, had been turned away by at least three other countries after hundreds of infections were reported on another cruise liner docked in Japan.
On February 14, Hun Sen travelled to the southwestern city of Sihanoukville to personally greet the MS Westerdam’s passengers. He presented them with flowers as they disembarked and even hugged some of them.
At the time, there were no reported cases of the infection, known as COVID-19, on the ship.
Hun Sen’s government went on to arrange tours for the disembarked passengers and floated the idea of hosting a party for them.
Even though Cambodia was a poor country, it was ready “to solve global problems” and to “get rid of fear and discrimination”, he wrote on Facebook.
The pro-government Phnom Penh Post newspaper praised the prime minister for his “humanitarian act” in an article titled: “Hun Sen to the rescue”, while Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization (WHO), thanked Hun Sen for his “welcome act of solidarity” and called on the world to avoid “stigma and fear”.
Donald Trump, president of the United States, also expressed gratitude for the Cambodian government’s “courtesy”.
The celebratory mood soured days later, however, when an 83-year-old passenger from the ship tested positive for the virus when she arrived in Malaysia. She was declared virus-free on Friday, nearly a week after she was admitted, but remains hospitalised because she continues to show symptoms, Malaysian authorities said.
The initial positive test has prompted worries the virus could spread in Cambodia, which has recorded only one case so far, and sent health authorities scrambling to track down and test the rest of the ship’s passengers.
But hundreds had left the country by then, triggering fears the virus could spread around the world.
Already, the new virus, first detected in China in late December, has spread to some 28 countries, infecting more than 76,000 people and killing 2,200, the vast majority in China.
But authorities in Cambodia are continuing to cast doubt on the positive test for the MS Westerdam passenger in Malaysia, especially after the woman was declared virus-free on Friday. There have been no further reported cases from the ship, they said.
“The irregularities in the results announced by Malaysian authorities have caused fear, confusion and discrimination among Westerdam passengers,” the Ministry of Health said in a statement on Friday.
It has also “affected the honour and dignity of humanity and the country,” it added.
Ly Sovann, spokeswoman for the ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera’s calls for comment.
The developments have prompted anger and confusion in Cambodia, with some accusing Hun Sen of endangering their health in order to improve his international image.
Speaking via telephone, Morth Sopha in the western province of Koh Kong said Hun Sen’s apparent “blase” attitude was aimed at appealing to China, his closest ally.
“The prime minister gains nothing in domestic political benefits, as a lot of Cambodian people are not happy with his decision, but he just wants to show off to the world and expects international political benefits,” she told Al Jazeera.
Mao Chhorn, a Phnom Penh resident, agreed with Sopha’s assessment, and condemned Hun Sen for allowing the passengers to stay in Cambodia and tour the city.
“There is a big chance the virus can spread,” said Chhorn.
Meanwhile, Pich Vanna, from the northern Preah Vihear province, said the government was not taking the situation seriously, and called for more awareness and free health checkups.
“It seems they have something to hide, as we don’t have much information about the coronavirus. The government claims there was only one case infected, but I have some doubts,” he said.
Mu Sochua, an opposition leader whose party has been banned in Cambodia, also criticised the government for allegedly ignoring the danger posed by the virus.
“We want the WHO to take Cambodia as a special case given the irresponsible behaviour of Hun Sen,” she said, accusing the prime minister – who won a widely criticised election in 2018 – of using the crisis to portray himself as a “hero”.
Hun Sen has repeatedly claimed that fear of COVID-19 was more dangerous than the virus itself.
On Tuesday, he said he would have let the Westerdam’s passengers off the ship even if they had the infection. And at a news conference in late January, he threatened to expel journalists after they attended a news conference wearing facemasks and refused to evacuate 23 Cambodian students from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak.
Separately, some experts criticised Hun Sen’s decision to welcome the passengers, saying the prime minister should not have taken such a risk given what they called the poor state of Cambodia’s medical infrastructure.
Cambodia’s healthcare system has a poor reputation among the public, mostly due to a lack of government investment in the sector. A 2016 study found approximately a third of Cambodia’s 1.4 million outbound tourists were travelling to another country for medical service.
The director of a Cambodian civil society group that offers healthcare services, said Cambodia has “not handled [the coronavirus outbreak] well at all” alleging screening measures at ports of entry were inadequate.
The director, who asked to remain anonymous, said the government’s decision to allow passengers to disembark was “absolutely” a sign it prioritised politics over health.
“Their commitment to keep good relations with China supersedes their desire to keep their people safe and healthy,” she said.
Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian regimes and author of Behind the Facade, said Hun Sen’s lack of domestic accountability means his government privileges “political point scoring” over healthcare.
Accusing Hun Sen of leveraging “the coronavirus for propaganda purposes”, he wrote: “Crafting an effective response to the coronavirus is impossible in Cambodia, because political power is centralised, hierarchical and, most importantly, personalised.
“In the same way as China, public servants are hesitant to diagnose problems, communicate negative information and take rational action.”