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How Cambodia battled COVID-19 while preparing itself for future emergencies


A technician at the National Reference Laboratory, Ministry of Health, carries out a COVID-19 test.   ©World Bank 

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, few countries were ready for the virus that was rapidly spreading across the globe. Cambodia was no exception. However, to its credit, the Ministry of Health responded swiftly with a COVID-19 National Action Plan that introduced measures to improve case detection and management, and increase the availability of critical medical supplies and equipment. The action plan also initiated broader measures to strengthen Cambodia’s health system that today are providing a sure footing for Cambodia to tackle future emergencies.

  The national action plan provided an all-of-government approach to respond to the public health emergency and socio-economic havoc caused by COVID. International collaboration was crucial to its success and provided timely support for the action plan’s four strategic objectives: reduce and delay transmission, minimize serious disease and reduce associated deaths, ensure ongoing essential health services, and minimize social and economic impact.

The World Bank’s support to the Ministry of Health, through the US$24.61 million Cambodia COVID-19 Emergency Response Project, helped the country fill critical gaps in implementing the national action plan. This included increasing the diagnostic capacity for laboratories attached to the 14 provincial and municipal referral hospitals and procuring much needed medical equipment and supplies, such as ventilators, patient monitors, and X-ray machines. It built on the US$14 million assistance that was already being channeled through the Contingency Emergency Response Component (CERC) of the Health Equity and Quality Improvement Project. CERC was used to quickly upgrade the capacity of two national laboratories, construct and equip two regional laboratories for testing COVID-19, and purchase ambulances and medical equipment for referral and treatment of patients at COVID-19 treatment centers.


A nurse vaccinating a young boy against COVID-19 during a vaccination campaign at the Meanchey referral hospital in Phnom Penh on February 19, 2021. Such campaigns help Cambodia vaccinate 95% of its population against the virus. ©World Bank

World Bank support also helped establish the Emergency Operating Center for the Department of Communicable Disease Control and all 25 provincial health department offices. This became a crucial hub for daily communication on case tracing, status of community outbreaks, referral, and treatment. The project also supplied equipment to keep vaccines cold during transportation and storage, and syringes, alcohol wipes and other consumables needed for COVID-19 vaccination.

Cambodia’s COVID-19 response effort reaffirms that strong coordination between government and development partners leads to faster and more effective deployment of resources. Close consultation between the government, the World Bank, United Nations agencies and other development partners quickly prioritized activities laid out in the COVID-19 National Action Plan. This allowed the development partners to avoid overlaps in funding and coordinate financing with the government.

With this coordinated, well-resourced, and proactive approach, Cambodia effectively responded to the immediate threats of the pandemic. Today, 95% of the population has been vaccinated against the virus.

Beyond the immediate response, Cambodia’s government initiated several activities that continue to enhance the country’s readiness for future health emergencies. It awarded a contract to renovate and upgrade the National Reference Laboratory at the National Institute of Public Health to become the country’s first national Biosafety Level 3 laboratory. It will be the first national laboratory capable of handling high risk pathogen bacteria and highly contagious viruses, including viral cultures of COVID-19. This is an essential element in the country's capacity to conduct surveillance, monitor outbreak, diagnose disease, and undertake important public health research. The Department of Communicable Disease Control is also developing a Pandemic Management System for effective data collection, management, and consolidation. It will be a real-time dashboard visualization system that will ensure better preparation and readiness for management of pandemic data in the future.

Additionally, Cambodia is growing its capacity to prevent, prepare, and respond to future pandemic threats through a “One Health” approach that combines human, animal, and environmental health. Drawing on a Pandemic Fund grant, the Cambodia Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Project aims to build on the reforms undertaken during the pandemic to increase the capability and capacity of surveillance, laboratory services, and human resources.


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