For the past year, we have been using words such as “difficult” and “challenging” in an attempt to paint a picture of our day-to-day reality, but in all honesty, these singular words undermine the enormity of what not only our families, but also our team have been going through.
This whirlwind of an update is going to give you some hard hitting insights into the current conditions of Siem Reap city, the many layers of ongoing suffering, and the recent events that led to four of our staff members being removed from their families.
This is quite a heavy blogpost, but keep reading on, because rest assured, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Whilst the rest of the world has been living and breathing the implications of Covid-19 for over a year, enduring a 24/7 live stream of media and overstimulating sensory information, at the start of 2021, Cambodia still remained comparatively unaffected by the virus. For the entire year of 2020, there was less than 500 reported cases and 0 deaths in the country.
Last year, the main cause of suffering to the Khmer population stemmed not from the virus itself, but from the closure of international borders. The pandemic crippled Cambodia’s tourism overnight, causing widespread unemployment.
It is important to remember that Cambodia is a developing nation. Prior to the pandemic, medical and social services were already severely lacking. Witnessing daily struggles and suffering brought on by the loss of tourism, our team has been terrified wondering how the country would survive if there was a largescale outbreak…this fear lived in our minds daily.
“February 20th, 2021” a date that will go down in Cambodian modern history.
February 20th marked the beginning of the widespread Covid-19 community transmission that has since surged throughout the country.
To understand what this means for the country, watch our latest video update:
The outbreak began in the capital city of Phnomh Penh and within just 7 weeks Cambodia’s case numbers skyrocketed into five digit figures. By the 20th of April, in a desperate attempt to contain the curve, the most affected areas in the city were placed into extremely strict lockdowns. These areas were titled the ‘red zones’ and measures were put in place whereby almost no one could leave their houses, not even for exercise.
The absence of a robust welfare system was highlighted as the vulnerability of poor families in these areas came to head. With markets and local shops closed and families unable to leave their houses to earn an income, many took to the streets to rally, in a bid to be heard and receive food assistance. Many families received food substitutes, but the need was so high and with limited resources, it was difficult to reach every single family in need, many were starving.
Watching this unfold from Siem Reap, as cases continue to spread across the provinces, we are living in constant fear that it will escalate to red zones here and families will have nothing.
With this newly added pressure, on April 23rd we received permissions from the authorities to accelerate our food distribution by delivering emergency packs directly to our families in the village. Living in constant fear that “red zones” will eventuate in Siem Reap, our greatest concern is that REACH families will starve.
Prior to our team going out into the field, we held an interactive zoom meeting with our Co-Founder and Chairman, John Ioannou who is based in Melbourne, Australia. The purpose of this was to reinforce the message behind wearing protective clothing and the risk of Covid-19 transmission, so that our team were better informed about the virus and understood the repercussions it has already had in so many other countries.
Our team listened to the instructions, followed strict protocols, and did everything right.
…but it was not enough.
On day 2 of the distribution, we received an unsettling phone call, informing us that a REACH family had been contact traced to a Covid-19 case and was at the Provincial Hospital being tested. We immediately stopped the distribution and waited for more information.
The next day, the results had come back, and 2 out of the 3 members of the REACH family were positive.
As our team had distributed food to this family the day before, we contacted the village chief for advice on how to move forward. Although our team were in full protective gear and had made indirect contact, to be extra safe they went to the testing facility. Here we thought they would be tested, and then sent home to self-isolate for a standard 14 day period, but what happened next was totally out of our control.
With just the clothes on their back, after taking their test, instead of going home, our four team members were admitted into an official quarantine centre. With very little information, they were put into the room of an empty school building; they were scared, in shock, confused, and completely unprepared for this to have happened to them.
After four extremely long days, endless phone calls, and what we can assume were the first round of negative tests, it was agreed by the facility that our team were in fact not “high risk.” The request we had lodged was approved and we were grateful to have the team moved out of the facility and into our NGO to carry out the remainder of their quarantine period. Here they began isolating in REACH’s grounds, where they had access to the kitchen, showers and had separate rooms to sleep in.
This small win was huge for us; knowing that our team was at REACH as opposed to the facility made it that little bit easier to bear.
14 long days went by and knowing that two of these resilient team members had small children at home, continually weighed on our minds. On the 15th day, the team was tested once more, and had to wait an additional 3 days to get results.
For 18 days our facility was in total lock-down. Given the precautions we had taken, it came as no surprise to us that these results came back negative.
In total, these 4 staff spent more than two weeks away from their family. Not because they had been irresponsible, but because they had provided emergency relief to those that needed it. As a result of REACH being locked down, we were also forced to delay our next food drop to our families by 5 days.
These two reasons alone, meant we needed a new strategy.
NO-CONTACT PICK-UP SERVICE
Supporting our families is and always will be paramount, but how could we continue to do this, if we risked losing our team to the quarantine centre or REACH’s facility closing for 18 days every time we made in-direct contact with them?
After assessing the risks, it was decided that until we are vaccinated, or it is deemed safer, our team could no longer meet with any families.
We worked hard on a new pick-up plan from out the front of REACH which assures that our families and staff do not cross paths. Our staff sit from within REACH, umbrellas are set outside and families come in socially distanced lots of 10 and are required to carry their own food home.
Our plan was approved by the Local Commune and we organised through the Chief of Village to hire local security to check temperatures, monitor the families and review Family I.D cards.
As the challenges in our environment continue to soar, our concerns for our families follow suit. The virus is here and hospitals are totally over-whelmed; we are thankful to report that the REACH family who contracted it, have made a full recovery and are now safely home.
2020 was the year that everyone wanted rid of, but in Cambodia, 2021 is a thousand times worse. Every day the challenges increase, and the logistics get harder and I would be lying if I said our team wasn’t exhausted.
We are emotionally drained.
But as we remind ourselves every day, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Cambodia has been very quick to roll out mass vaccinations, in less than 3 months 12% of the population has received their first vaccination.
We are in the heart of the struggle and it is devastating, but we are banking on the hope that before too long, it will pass. We are assuring ourselves that the hospital beds will free up, the dust filled sky will settle, and the sounds of laughter will fill our classrooms once more.
We truly believe that we will wake up one morning, and step outside to see a beautifully developed city, that flights will begin landing, volunteer teaching in Cambodia will be back on, tourists will return, and Siem Reap will begin to heal.
But from now until then, our team needs to stay strong and continue to stand by these families. To do this, we need to call on our supporters far and wide.
HOW CAN YOU HELP US?
On the 1st June, we will be launching a HUGE campaign which will enable us to scale up our impact by actioning strategic responses to the current crisis’.
If you are considering donating, please wait!
On the 1st June your donation will reach further.
Together, we can ensure that REACH children won’t drop out of school and their families will make it through.
#doubleyourREACH #campaign #countdown