How Cambodia is coping with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Oxfam Cambodia’s Country Director Solinn Lim. Khmer Times/Chor Sokunthea

Oxfam Cambodia’s Country Director Solinn Lim says COVID-19 vaccines could be the light at the end of our global pandemic nightmare, but only if they are available to everyone, everywhere, as soon as possible. Here is an exclusive interview writen by Mr. Sok Chan from Khmer Times. The article was published on 30 March 2021

KT: What are your comments on the current status of the government’s intervention to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine inoculation mechanism?

Lim: We commend the Royal Government for taking the right steps to further prevent the community transmission of this lethal virus. We have great admiration for our front-line health and essential workers who are risking their health to protect others and keep the economy and society going.

To stop the pandemic, we need [vaccination strategies] that prioritise public health over profits. The Gates Foundation has estimated the cost of procuring and delivering vaccine to poor countries at $25 billion. That represents less than four months of the profits of the top 10 global pharmaceutical corporations last year. Thus, if pharma cut back just four months of profit generated during the pandemic in 2020, [it would be a sufficient amount to] secure vaccination for everyone on this planet.

We are delighted to see the government’s commitment to vaccinate up to 10 million people by 2021 and that there is an outpouring of pledges from private and bilateral donors to pay for vaccines.

In Cambodia we don’t have a streamlined health database that allows the government to prioritise people as per their health conditions. So, in a way, we are happy to see the government increasingly prioritising elderly people who are more vulnerable as per the spirit of the World Health Organization-led COVAX facility of which Cambodia is a member.

COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, abbreviated as COVAX, is a global initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines led by UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and others.

We welcome the government’s announcement about the 15-day vaccination campaign for people 60 years old and above. We will continue to monitor this positive development very closely.

KT:  What have you observed of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out in developed countries, developing countries and least-developed countries globally?

Lim: Developed, developing and least-developed countries have the same priority, which is to vaccinate their populations and regain normalcy as fast as possible, but their capacity [to do this] varies. We have seen vaccine wars that are testing the rules of engagement of global trade and while that solves problems in the short term, they won’t go away until everyone is vaccinated.

The National Bureau of Economic Research issued a warning based on its study that if only developed countries are vaccinated by the middle of this year and least-developed countries are missed out, the global economy will see a loss of $9 trillion, which is the equivalent of the annual gross domestic products of German and Japan combined. Our economy is globalised and countries are dependent on each other more than ever. Thus, only [the complete vaccination of all people] is the answer to this global pandemic.

KT: What should be done to ensure the distribution of vaccines with more equity and transparency? Is there any role model for vaccine distribution so far?

Lim: COVID-19 vaccines could be the light at the end of our global pandemic nightmare, but only if they are available to everyone, everywhere, as soon as possible. We need a [people-centric vaccine process], where they are patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available free of charge to every individual, rich and poor alike.

India and South Africa proposed a resolution to the World Trade Organization  (WTO) General Council back in November 2020, the “TRIPS Waiver Resolution”. If approved, it will enable access to affordable technologies, including vaccines, in particular for developing and middle-income countries.

Oxfam is part of the People Vaccine Movement Global Coalition and we have been mobilising both the public and governments to gather support for this resolution. On March 3-4 this resolution was put forward again to the WTO General Council and it gathered support from more than 100 countries.

We are happy that Cambodia has co-sponsored this resolution as part of the LDC (Least-Developed Countries) group. This strong momentum is hopeful but we are racing against time and we need more public support to make sure this campaign is a success. There’s not a minute to waste.

A People’s Vaccine is not just the right thing to do: It is also the fastest way to jumpstart our economy and prevent the economic devastation facing families and small businesses. We cannot reopen our economy until we have an effective vaccine and enough people receive it.India and South Africa proposed a resolution to the World Trade Organization  (WTO) General Council back in November 2020, the “TRIPS Waiver Resolution”. If approved, it will enable access to affordable technologies, including vaccines, in particular for developing and middle-income countries.

Oxfam is part of the People Vaccine Movement Global Coalition and we have been mobilising both the public and governments to gather support for this resolution. On March 3-4 this resolution was put forward again to the WTO General Council and it gathered support from more than 100 countries.

We are happy that Cambodia has co-sponsored this resolution as part of the LDC (Least-Developed Countries) group. This strong momentum is hopeful but we are racing against time and we need more public support to make sure this campaign is a success. There’s not a minute to waste.

A People’s Vaccine is not just the right thing to do: It is also the fastest way to jumpstart our economy and prevent the economic devastation facing families and small businesses. We cannot reopen our economy until we have an effective vaccine and enough people receive it.

Thanks to the multi-trust COVAX facility, Cambodia has received its first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine and more batches are on the way – but that is far from enough doses to ensure that all Cambodians will be vaccinated as soon as possible. A “People’s Vaccine” is the only answer.

KT:   COVID-19 vaccines are developed for commercial purposes rather than for humanity. What are your recommendations and what has Oxfam done to push the vaccines towards a humanitarian role?

Lim: Oxfam is playing a leading role in the global push for a “People’s Vaccine”, a crucial campaign to bring an end to this deadly pandemic, save lives and livelihoods and avert a huge new level of inequality. The campaign demands an end to the monopoly ownership of successful COVID-19 vaccines by a handful of pharmaceutical corporations so we can scale up manufacturing and get safe, effective and affordable vaccines free of charge to everyone on the planet. The exclusive rights and intellectual property of pharmaceutical corporations on successful COVID-19 vaccines are artificially rationing supply and driving up prices.

They hold all the power on how many vaccines get made, who gets to buy them and at what price. Too few vaccines are being made and rich countries are pushing their way to the front of the queue.  Many people will die as a result and the end of this crisis will be delayed for all of us.

KT:  How do you assess the Cambodian context regarding the rolling out of the vaccine-inoculation?

Lim: We saw a brief positive step recently as the government allowed people over 60 years old to get inoculated with COVISHIELD (the Indian version of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine).

We have observed cases where elderly people who  queued for vaccinations at referral hospitals in Phnom Penh were turned away for various reasons.

Therefore, we are glad to see  the government prioritising the elderly with its new 15-day campaign. We hope and we will monitor  developments closely. We wish to see a larger population of vulnerable people, including those who hold ID Poor status and live under the poverty line, to be included in the roll-out programme.

They are essential workers, and they keep the economy running for the poor and most of us. Often, their health is poorer, making them susceptible to falling victim to this lethal virus. So, it is a no-brainer that we should prioritise them for the next batch of vaccines that will come in May this year. Cambodia is part of the 85 COVAX countries that will not have widespread access to Coronavirus vaccines before 2023. We need to prioritise this precious vaccine we are securing.