In this fast-changing, uncertain and devastating climate, it has taken some time for us to come to terms with this daunting situation. We’d now like to share with you what COVID-19 means for our staff and families at REACH Siem Reap.
On Monday the 2nd of March, after 8 months of extremely hard work, planning and support from various key members, our vision for REACH finally came to fruition. It’s difficult to believe that it was only 3 weeks ago that we welcomed over 200 children from 127 families to our free community school.
All 127 of these families are living in abject poverty. Sadly, more than 60% of these families are residing illegally on government roadside or squatting on private properties. Many of their dwellings are unsanitary, and unsafe. Most are made out of recycled scrap metal or rubbish, with some families living under tarps or in tents, and most have no toilets or access to clean drinking water.
At the time of house-visits in March, the average household income for our families was a mere $3.75 per day. These few dollars a day are used to provide for an average of 5 family members, and in some cases up to 11.
The vast majority of these families had never had the support of an NGO before, so, to see their children bursting with joy on their first day of school, with a full belly from our meals program, clean hands at our hygiene station, and having their caring parents and grandparents watching from the gate, was something the entire team was incredibly proud of.
Sadly, this joy was short lived, and in-line with the Government verdict, to protect the community from COVID-19, our school was forced to close after only 3 days.
WHAT COVID-19 MEANS FOR CAMBODIA
At present, there are 91 reported cases of COVID-19 in Cambodia, and the number of cases are rapidly increasing. As with any developing country, limited testing and unreliable news sources, has left an unnerving and overwhelming feeling of the unknown across the nation.
On top of this, with unregulated information circulating on social media, viral videos of people dropping dead, and rumors that all foreigners carry the virus, many Cambodians are extremely scared.
There’s only one public hospital in Siem Reap that will treat the virus and if you visit the hospital with symptoms, you will be put into isolation at the hospital for 14 days. Recently, private clinics have been turning people away at the door if they have a temperature, not having the measures to cope with a potential threat of transmission and unable to treat patients with the virus. Cambodians have very few places to turn to for support.
Far more frightening than the virus itself, is the starvation and loss that will follow as a result of the economy collapsing.
In a country where over a third of the GDP share is in tourism, global visitors to the world-famous Angkor Wat UNESCO heritage site in Siem Reap is the bloodline for most business’ in this city.
In the last two weeks, most foreigners have been called home, many expatriates have left the country and tourism is non-existent. There is no doubt that the tourism sector is being greatly impacted, and as a result, many locals have already lost their jobs. Hotels and business’ are closing down quickly, and with government mandates to close KTV’s, Clubs, Bars, Cinemas and put a stop to future construction projects, the unemployment rate is sky rocketing. The effect of this loss is grave, and immediate.
At REACH, the majority of our kids’ parents are in jobs that will be made redundant due to COVID-19; 23% are Tuk-tuk or moto-drivers, 18% are security guards at hotels and 15% work on construction sites.
With no social services or welfare available in Cambodia, the loss of employment is dire, those without work are without the means to pay for basic necessities to survive.
In Cambodia, there is ample imported food and toilet paper on the shelves in the supermarket, but that is only because the majority of the Khmer population cannot afford to buy any of these commodities. The families that we serve at REACH survive hand to mouth, day to day, and without income, are going to starve. With chronic illness already rampant and widespread and no free healthcare solutions for adults; the loss of their small incomes will impact impoverished Khmer families greatly.
Our hearts bleed not only for Khmers living in abject poverty, but also for the emerging middle class, who have worked for years to get ahead. We truly fear, that many of these people will lose their jobs, be pushed back into dire poverty, and with outstanding loans on motorbikes, small business’ and their houses, we will see many go into irreversible debt.
As we fear for the health and well-being of the population here, we also fear for the safety of all in the community. With desperation; comes crime. Unfortunately, with so many living on the cusp, we are expecting to see a large surge in crime. Financial pressures will lead to increased domestic violence, and the closure of schools means many children are left at home, at risk and unattended.
No one can predict how long this global crisis will last, but one thing that we can be sure of, is that it will take a long time for tourism to return to Siem Reap and rebuild the economy. Moreover, with many international aid workers from organisations such as Peace Core being withdrawn and sent home, volunteer work in Cambodia has already decreased immensely.
WHAT COVID-19 MEANS FOR REACH
Our priorities in this severe time of crisis, are our Khmer staff, and our beneficiaries.
Our first reaction to the forced closure of school was to immediately give crisis supplies to all families at REACH. On March 11th, our team distributed the following provisions per student: 5kg of rice, a bar of soap and a tin of fish.
We reiterated the importance of personal hygiene at this time and also provided all families with our Outreach contact details in case of any emergencies.
Following this, our focus was then directed to our incredible team of 12 Khmer staff. A new team, but one which already, we are very proud of. These individuals have worked hard to overcome their own challenges in life and are extremely dedicated to helping the poor. Our Khmer team are the future of REACH, they are the role models to all beneficiaries in our care, and their health and wellbeing is of the utmost importance to us.
As such, we fast tracked the registration of all our staff to the National Security Health Fund (NSHF). This workplace insurance card covers all staff for injuries, road accidents, and any general health care that they require. Should the staff fall ill at any time, they will now have access to proper medical care and treatment free of charge at partner institutions.
As more information regarding the importance of social distancing became clear, on the 17th of March, we decided to send all staff home to self-isolate, with only our two department managers working from the school. As our management team work diligently on strategizing the continuation of our cause during suspension, our teachers are being given tasks to complete at home. They will be preparing course material and lesson plans for each of their classes, as well as developing our REACH Morality curriculum. All are being kept busy and productive from the safety of their homes and the team will be well prepared to resume teaching, when directed by the government.
During this forced closure, we are committed to paying our Khmer staff 100% of their salaries and maintaining their NSHF for as long as possible. With many in Cambodia losing their income, we want to ensure that our team are able to support their families and can focus on keeping healthy during this difficult time.
Moving forward, the government has since ordered KTV, Clubs, Bars and Cinemas to close, and we expect further isolation restrictions to be put in place. With that in mind, we have decided to schedule monthly distributions of crisis relief rations for each of our families. The packages include eggs, rice, sauces and soap and the amounts are based on the number of their children enrolled at REACH. While distributing the care packages, to prevent possible transmission of the virus, we have identified strict social distancing and hygiene measures to protect our staff and beneficiaries.
Opening our Cambodian’s children charity during this global pandemic is incredibly challenging, the problem is overwhelming, and we can only do so much. We are devastated that the children cannot be in school, but we are taking solace in the fact our crisis distribution packs will be a life-line for these families. These rations will help to keep each of the families healthy and will prevent them from starving during this pandemic.
TO OUR INTERNATIONAL SUPPORTERS
Writing this update, we are very aware that this crisis is global, that suffering is widespread and is affecting all of our supporters around the world.
We thank those who have made donations in the past and recently, saved seats for students, as well as those who have joined our “Running Costs Club” with recurring monthly donations.
If you are reading this and are able to help, please consider making a donation to REACH. Despite our school being closed, costs such as our crisis distribution packs, rental fee and our Khmer staff receiving their salaries, mean our running costs remain high.
All Australian donors will receive a tax-deductible receipt for their contribution, to make a donation, please visit: www.reachsiemreap.org/donate
This has been a challenging update to write and a very difficult call for help, if you are in the position to respond that would be fantastic, and if not, we know you are supporting us by reading the blog, following our journey and spreading the word.
We will be posting another blog in a few weeks and we hope there will be some better news for ALL of us. Our thoughts are with all of you during this unprecedented time, stay healthy, stay positive, and let’s all hope for brighter days.
With love from Emily and the team at REACH.