Civil servants in Cambodia are up in arms over a directive ordering them to get China’s homegrown coronavirus vaccines to help combat a deadly outbreak in the country or be issued a pink slip, saying they do not trust the quality of the injection and calling for a review of its effectiveness.
On April 6, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that any civil servants who refuse the Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines will be fired and ordered authorities to record their names, citing their risk of infecting others. He also said that those who choose not to get the vaccines will be “prevented from going to work.”
“Local authorities—especially governors and district governors—must monitor their staff in all provinces to determine who hasn’t been vaccinated make sure they are not trying to avoid vaccination,” he said.
“In case people avoid vaccination, we should not invite them to work. We’d rather have them stay at home. We’d like them to leave their jobs and we will hire their substitutes.”
Hun Sen also said that anyone who is seeking a job as a civil servant or being trained for one must first be vaccinated before they can take their examinations.
China donated its second batch of the Sinopharm vaccine to Cambodia on April 1, following an initial batch which arrived on Feb. 7. On March 26, a batch of Sinovac vaccine that Cambodia purchased from China’s pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech also arrived in the country.
Cambodia launched a drive to inoculate at least 10 million of its 16 million people in February and as of April 1, more than 407,000 people in priority groups had been vaccinated, according to a government report. Cambodia’s Ministry of Health secretary of state Or Vandine has called the Chinese vaccines safe and effective, and said that there have been no reports of serious side effects after inoculations.
Despite the government’s claims, civil servants said Friday that Hun Sen’s order is a violation of their right to decide how they want to get vaccinated.
Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, a teacher told RFA’s Khmer Service that some civil servants don’t want to take the Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines because they haven’t been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) yet.
“We must follow [Hun Sen’s] order, otherwise we will be punished,” he said.
“But I don’t agree with this way. I can’t accept it. We live in a democratic country and the people have the right to express their opinion on whether or not they want to be vaccinated.”
Another civil servant, who also declined to be named, said the government should conduct more research into the effectiveness of the vaccines and make the results public to alleviate doubts.
He noted that government offices will be registering the names of those who refuse to be vaccinated, and that those people could be subjected to discrimination because of their decision.
“We don’t discriminate against any vaccine, but we want it to be recognized by the WHO,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA on Friday that according to Cambodia’s civil servant statute, the state has the right to terminate anyone who does not listen to instructions. He confirmed that, right now, the vaccination is no longer given on a volunteer basis—it is mandatory, and the government must protect the lives of others.
“Many countries have already administered [Sinopharm and Sinovac],” he said. “[Civil servants] can’t demand that their human rights are more important than the current [outbreak] situation.”
Cambodia on Friday broke its record for the number of daily infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with 576—most of which were found in the capital Phnom Penh.
The country, which had largely remained unscathed by the coronavirus in 2020, registered its first death from COVID-19 last month, a year to the day that that the WHO labeled it a pandemic. Since then, 25 people have died, and Cambodia’s caseload has reached nearly 4,000 people.
But despite growing risks from the outbreak, Cambodian Independent Teachers Association president Ouk Chhayavy told RFA that the government cannot simply fire the country’s civil servants because of their preference on how to deal with the coronavirus and dismissed Hun Sen’s order as a “threat.”
“It is the right of the people to decide whether they want to be vaccinated or not,” she said. “If parents repeatedly threaten their children, will the children respect them?”
Political analyst Kim Sok called Hun Sen’s statement “inhumane.”
“The government’s forcing of policy is inhumane and unethical,” he said, noting that Hun Sen himself had chosen the U.K.’s AstraZeneca vaccine over those from China.
“It is unethical when you force people to do what you, yourself, are afraid to do,” he said, calling Hun Sen “a poor leader and model.”
“Hun Sen is implementing China’s trial policy. If he doesn’t force people [to take their vaccine], he won’t be able to face China.”
Kim Sok called on Cambodians to stand up and protest against the distribution of the Chinese vaccines, or risk their health.
At the end of March, Sinopharm and Sinovac presented data on their vaccines indicating levels of efficacy that would be compatible with those required by the WHO, according to Reuters news agency, which reported that the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) hopes to issue recommendations on the vaccines by the end of April.
The WHO requires around 50 percent efficacy and safety data to show that the vaccine will not cause harm in humans when used. The developer of Sinopharm’s vaccine has said it was more than 79 percent effective in preventing people from developing COVID-19 based on interim data, while Sinovac’s vaccine showed varied efficacy readings of between 50 percent and 83 percent based on trials in Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia.
A WHO spokeswoman said in early March that the two Chinese vaccines could receive emergency use listing “quite soon.”
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036