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Covid-19 Rapid Assessment: Lockdown situation in Phnom Penh

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Executive Summary

On the 14th of April 2021, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced1 a two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh. This lockdown came after two months of a slow but steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in different areas of the Capital. Many of these cases were connected to what the Government called the February 20th event, leading to the previous closure of several buildings and areas within the city, with high incidences of COVID-19 positives. Even if the lockdown is lifted on May 5th, it is almost certain that some areas will remain classed as Red Zones, and hence continue to experience a severe lockdown until cases drop or the situation becomes unsustainable.

With the aim of gaining an understanding of the impact of the lockdown on Phnom Penh’s vulnerable population, PIN, DCA, WRC, and partners undertook a phone-based rapid-assessment in 15 communes between April 26th and May 1st 2020.

The findings from the assessment clearly show the two greatest challenges faced by Phnom Penh citizens under the current lockdown:

  • Scarcity and difficulty to purchase food

  • Shortage and difficulty to access cash

Lack of food was found to be the most prominent issue; in fact, 77% of respondents reported having insufficient food over the past 7 days. Greater acute lack of food was found in red zones, where this number ascended to 83% of the population.

Although 43% of respondents have already received some kind of food assistance (half of them from Government support), it is still the highest need identified by 94% of respondents for the coming weeks, followed by cash support (70%). These findings become even more alarming when analysed jointly with trends from May 2020, which show a steady increase in job losses since the beginning of the C-19 crisis.

These trends in job losses and decreased income levels reached their peak following the announcement of coloured divisions in Phnom Penh (April 2021). Currently 68% of families are not able to engage in income generating activities and 29% of families are experiencing a decrease in income levels. Overall, 98% of families are being negatively impacted financially by the lockdown restrictions imposed since the 15th of April. Recent figures are more concerning in red zone areas compared to non-red zone areas. 70% of families living in red zone areas lost their jobs, compared to 58% of families in non-red zone areas. Additionally, 77% of families in red zone areas experienced a decrease in income levels compared to 72% of families in non-red zone areas. These protracted negative economic trends, that have been affecting families since early 2020, could have contributed to families’ overall vulnerability and lack of financial resources.

The majority of respondents are currently able to buy food, either from small local market’s (68%), street vendors (37%), or alternative sources such as the Shopping Points established by Ministry of Commerce 1. However, it is unclear from the findings of this research how accessible cash is from service providers (small agents such as Wing or SmartLuy).

Given the aforementioned scenario, it is worth considering a cash-based response, especially in those areas where small local markets and street vendors are accessible, and provided that the specific Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB) is developed to suite the current market prices. If a cash-based response was proven to be an unviable option, findings in this report suggests in-kind food distribution as the second most preferred modality to support households in Phnom Penh - prioritizing those living in red zones - in order to help alleviate their current lack of food.

Policies and actions towards reactivating the economy - especially the micro-economy at a household level - will be crucial to ensure that families are capable of building-back after this crisis.

The economic impacts of the crisis are widespread and affect both ID Poor holders and non-ID Poor holders alike. This assessment showed no evidence of ID Poor households being in worse conditions than non-ID Poor holders, which could be due to the support that ID Poor holders have been receiving by the Government in the past few months (among other reasons). Regardless the origin of this equivalence, this suggests that emergency and long-term interventions, should base the beneficiary selection on actual social economic data, and avoid using ID Poor as a sole criterion for this selection.

During data collection some respondents identified themselves as living in red zones, when in fact, they were not living in red zone areas. Follow up calls suggested that some of them had the impression of living in red zones as they had seen their buildings closed or limited by tape. Clear messaging from Government and other stakeholders, as well as mainstreaming of information, would help to avoid misunderstandings which could lead to uncertainty and panic.

Finally, researches around the world4 have recently found psychological distress as a consequence of lockdown in very different contexts. Findings from this rapid assessment point towards the same phenomenon in Phnom Penh, with 80% of surveyed people feeling overwhelmed, helpless or hopeless. Unsurprisingly, the number is even higher when looking at people living in red zones (93% vs 74% in non-red zones). In addition to this, the data collected shows that knowledge about existing psychological support services is very minimal (3%), evidencing the need to increase the awareness of available psychological services. Having robust and well disseminated psychological support services would contribute to ensure the mental wellbeing of many people, especially those living in red zone areas