In 2020, a storm called COVID-19 brought the entire globe to a grinding halt.
From New York to New Delhi to Phnom Penh, its impacts have been significant and varying. At least temporarily, it has transformed the way we live, work and interact.
Cities have seen perhaps the most radical changes to day-to-day living. But what about rural communities? How has life shifted and what unique challenges do they face when it comes to the crisis?
Villages in the Cambodian provinces of Pursat and Siem Reap present interesting insights into the experiences, concerns, and opportunities felt by rural communities.
Reaching rural communities with accurate information
A concern that arose early was how to promote correct news and avoid the spread of misinformation. One example has been the prevalence of the idea that COVID-19 is a ‘foreigners’ disease – a problematic notion which influences both prevention adherence and transmission.
To reach the public, People in Need (PIN) Cambodia, with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) support, decided to activate their 1294 Early Warning System (a mobile phone service known as ‘EWS1294’).
By April, the service had made more than 90 COVID-19-related calls to 133,295 people, as well as posting regular Facebook updates about hygiene practices.
However, not everyone in the provinces has signed up for the system; many sought information from media, NGOs, public announcements, and a recorded COVID-19 awareness message that plays as a dial tone when making calls on a mobile phone.
This array of sources, particularly on such a novel topic, makes it challenging to ensure accurate information is getting out there and understood.
Another strategy to support COVID-19 awareness, then, has been to use ‘Women Champions’ networks to run campaigns across Kep, Koh Kong and Pursat.
Originally trained to enhance gender equality and disaster risk reduction under a partnership between ActionAid Cambodia and UNDP, these women provide an ideal point for information dissemination during COVID-19 restrictions – they are on the ground in a time when many NGOs are restricted in personnel and travel capacity, can ensure inclusion of vulnerable groups (including the elderly), and have pre-existing in-person and online networks for communication.
To date, over 4,900 households have attended COVID-19 awareness training sessions run by the Women Champions, which included receiving information flyers and a bar of soap. Members of Snar Ansar commune in Pursat are light-hearted as they demonstrate what they learned, including correct handwashing techniques and social distancing.
“We were both involved in COVID-19 awareness trainings in Pursat, as well as disseminating information to our neighbours and community. We’re happy and proud that we can help people. Everyone was afraid of COVID-19 during the outbreak, but now we feel more resilient.” – Ms. Tong Tim and Ms. Ten Kimney, Women Champions
Sustaining through subsistence farming
As well as the immediate health challenges of the pandemic, families have been focusing on their economic survival – most importantly, keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on the table.
Yet while the pandemic has undermined livelihoods in many places, dependence on subsistence farming actually worked in some communes’ favour during this time.
“In rural areas we have more opportunities to grow our own rice, chickens and vegetables, so even though we have lower incomes than people in the city, we can still support our own families,” said Ms. Thai Soda, deputy chief of Sovatepheap Thoamacheat Agricultural Cooperative.
Members of Sovatepheap Thoamacheat Agricultural Cooperative have been exchanging produce at a reduced cost, enabling them to earn income while supporting each other.
Such adaptations demonstrated a resounding response – many feel it is overall easier to navigate COVID-19 in rural, rather than urban, areas.
“The farmer lifestyle is better than places like Phnom Penh [the Cambodian capital] for COVID-19. We can do buying at a distance, we don’t need to go to a crowded market like they do in Phnom Penh.” - Ms. Hok Laykeang, Kampong Lor Women Champion.
Others say that in situations that do require interaction, it is easy to socially distance and wear masks.
The rural lifestyle, however, also presents challenges; for example, massive migration rates in Kampong Pou commune (60 percent of the community, primarily to Thailand and Phnom Penh) influenced earning capacity. “While we think that people at community level are safer than in town, during COVID-19 these people can’t migrate [to work] and support their families. The poor might owe lots of money to banks, which they can’t pay back if they aren’t working,” said Ms. Laykeang.
This worker influx influenced supply in local markets.
“Before COVID-10, we faced a supply shortage – we had access to markets but not enough vegetables. After COVID-19, it is the opposite: workers return [from the towns and cities] and begin to grow vegetables, but there are not enough buyers [due to reduced demand from restaurants, tourists etc.], so we then have a market surplus.” – Ms. Soda
Members of Snar Ansar commune have not described experiencing detrimental COVID-19 impacts. Growing their own food, as well as limited factory shutdowns and ongoing salary payments (even if reduced) has made it easier for self-sustainment.
“Some families even feel better during COVID-19 as they can stay home together, the husband doesn’t demand as much money!” said Ms. Tim. This commune has seen a reduction of family issues during this time, as fights and violence were often attributed to men asking for money to go out – something less possible during COVID-19. This demonstrates an example of how one commune may be different to global trends, which tend to see an increase of gender-based violence during any type of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
While these comments provide an insight into rural Cambodian life during a global pandemic, it would be remiss to not consider that these experiences may have been very different had there been community outbreaks in the country, a disaster during this period, or little push for awareness activities.
Furthermore, such sentiments only reflect experiences of those in specific communes of rural Pursat and Siem Reap; experiences may be different in Battambang or Mondulkiri, for example, or in Siem Reap city centre.
Partnerships between ActionAid Cambodia, DanChurchAid and UNDP have been established under the UNDP-supported ‘Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Cambodia’ project, funded by GEF-Least Developed Countries Fund.
Written by Kelsea Clingeleffer, Results Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Consultant
For more information contact Muhibuddin Usamah (Project Manager) at firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Strengthening Climate Information and Early Warning Systems in Cambodia’ Twitter timeline here.
For updates on this project and UNDP Cambodia’s broader work, follow @UNDPCambodia on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn
‘Calling Cambodians to Put a Check on COVID-19’, April 2019
‘Dovetailing disasters: how COVID-19 is compounding risk for Cambodian communities’, April 2020