The Tokyo Olympics are a tremendous spectacle, but also a sign that some elements of the lives that we knew before the arrival of COVID may be back, even if in modified form. At the end of July, the Cambodian government’s national vaccination drive for adults had already reached 71% of its target for the year, and the campaign to reach 12 to 17 year olds kicked off on August 1. As a result, we are rapidly approaching the time when we can start to think practically and responsibly about how and when to reopen Cambodia’s economy and borders, with a particular view towards breathing fresh air into the moribund body of the tourism and hospitality industry which plays such a vital role in sustaining Cambodia’s economy.
It has become increasingly clear over the course of the past almost 20 months that COVID-19 is here to stay. While countries like New Zealand and other island nations have pursued an elimination strategy, the opposite approach of achieving herd immunity has been compromised because new variants are emerging too quickly while global vaccination is happening too slowly. As a result, immunologists, infectious disease experts and virologists are overwhelmingly of the view that the virus will become endemic, meaning that it will continue to persist at a certain threshold in the global population. Outbreaks may occur, but may be considered bearable provided they do not spiral out of control. Examples of endemic diseases with which we already live include dengue, malaria and tuberculosis.
This means that we are all somehow going to have to learn to live with the virus, to adapt to this “new normal” in a way that keeps people safe, while also safeguarding the economy on which their futures and wellbeing depend. Singapore, a country that in the early days of the COVID era also adopted a zero-transmission strategy with some of the most stringent measures for containing the virus, has already announced its intention to proceed by learning to live with the virus.
Their strategy is multilayered with rules for citizens, who will be urged to practice “social responsibility” and allowed to recover at home if they fall sick, and the expansion of rapid testing. Testing will also be specifically targeted at borders in order to catch potential cases entering the country. While their progress has been marred by an outbreak of clusters associated with former nightclubs, the government has responded by ring-fencing the establishments and those directly at risk of transmission rather than shutting down entire localities.
Individually and collectively, we are all going to have to take responsibility for keeping ourselves and those around us safe. How well we do that will be key in how well and quickly we will see a return to prosperity for the nation. For businesses such as ours, that means strong hygiene practices and facilitating social distancing where possible.
The government has acknowledged that the road to recovery will be a long one for the tourism sector. In a draft strategy paper published in April this year, the Ministry of Tourism noted that, ”The Covid-19 crisis has had a substantial bearing on global development in all areas. Of note, the Cambodian tourism sector must wait three-to-five years to be able to return to its former form. But if Covid-19 persists, it could take up to seven years to do so”. At this time, more than 30% of the tourism industry that we knew before COVID has already ceased to exist. Many of the rest are on the rest are on the ropes, but somehow holding on.
We hope that as the vaccination drive continues its successes in Cambodia, the first steps towards sensible reopening of our nation’s borders to other countries that have established reliable levels of vaccination can be put in motion at the earliest date so that those businesses that remain, and continue to provide employment, can to stop hanging on and start moving on and re-establishing Cambodia as a sought-after destination for the world.