Omicron is a contagious variant of SARS‑CoV‑2 that has created yet another bout of uncertainty but the Kingdom can be better prepared if it takes the threat seriously.

In the second week of 2022, Cambodia registered its first community case of the Omicron variant – a 23-year-old from Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district is said to have caught it from a cousin.

Both had recently returned from Australia where the variant has overwhelmed hospitals, especially in New South Wales.

Omicron is highly transmissible and a medical expert in Hong Kong expects 250,000 cases within six months in the international hub. So far, the coastal city in South China has registered only 12,852 cases. Omicron can even infect those who have been previously infected or vaccinated.

It is difficult to know at this juncture if the rising number of cases in the community will lead to a breakout in the manner of the delta variant last year.

Should there be a relapse then any hopes of a swift economic recovery could be dashed. It could lead to a slowdown in investment in Cambodia and affect consumer sentiment destroying the progress made since Cambodia re-opened borders last November.

However, Cambodians have it in them to rally together once more and reduce the impact of the latest variant on the country.

It’s a less deadly variant

The good news is that large-scale studies in the United States indicate the Omicron variant does not lead to hospitalization and death to quite the same levels as the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Janet Diaz, the World Health Organization lead on clinical management, warned that Omicron should not be seen as a ‘mild’ disease but it does appear it leads to reduced risk of severity among younger and older people in affected populations. It means affected individuals are less likely to suffer a period of severe illness.

Demonstrating remarkably different symptoms such as runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and sore throat, Omicron appears to be similar to cold-like illnesses.

Countries like Cambodia that have long been vigilant against malaria, tuberculosis and influenza should therefore be better prepared psychologically.

Still, Cambodians should continue to wear masks, ensure ventilation and reduce touchpoints. Even if Omicron is less deadly in comparison with the delta variant and the original coronavirus, its contagiousness has meant that it has overwhelmed hospital systems in many parts of the world with patients of other illnesses suffering the heaviest costs.

Testing, vaccines work but residents must queue up again

Hospital workers around the world must have been relieved to find that PCR tests and lateral flow tests can detect the Omicron variant.

Had it required an altogether different testing regime, the costs involved in retooling hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centers in every country would have been astronomical. (Real estate in Cambodia is still at a nascent stage and not quite digitized but it has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two years.)

However, COVID-19 vaccines are only effective if they are supplemented with a booster shot, according to a study by researchers at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Unfortunately, populations that received a two-dose Sinovac shot will not be adequately protected by an additional Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot, state researchers from Yale University, the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Health and other institutions.

Cambodians have diligently signed up for booster shots with 4 million people administered the extra vaccine (mostly Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines) so far.

They might need to get ready to queue up once more for a two-dose mRNA-based regimen (subject to availability of vaccines) to ensure maximum immunity against Omicron.

In recent weeks, donated mRNA vaccines are being made swiftly available in Phnom Penh because of the need for cold storage.

Also read: Which Types of Pharmacy Are Best for You?

Companies need to shoulder the burden

The government and the healthcare sector can only do so much, especially as they have exhausted their fiscal capacity. The pressing focus for multilateral organisations right now is on under-vaccinated regions like South Asia and Eastern Africa.

That’s why it will be crucial for the private sector to play an even greater role this year.

Companies need to restore remote working protocols, if necessary, and reduce human-to-human contact. They need to vaccinate employees in high exposure settings. Furthermore, they must ensure offices, workspaces and venues continue to adhere to anti-Covid protocols and are disinfected on a regular basis.

Luckily, much of the groundwork has been put into place. Offices are ready and people are now instinctively washing their hands when they enter places and donning masks when they head out.

A good example has been set by Prince Holding Group, an airways-to-real estate conglomerate, recently as it worked with Plan International to donate nearly 1,200 pedal-operated handwashing stations and 990 infrared thermometers to schools in Sihanoukville.

Should travelers bring the Omicron variant with them, the province could be especially vulnerable and school children, many of whom are now back in school for the first time in months, could become unwitting vectors for Omicron’s spread.

Investment in Cambodia will surely suffer as many discussions are expected to take place in the province and meetings and conferences were clearly being organised with a sense of optimism at the turn of the year.

Leaders need to rise to the stage

Still, there will always be vulnerable or ignorant groups and it will be important for leaders to proactively think of themselves as guardians of their communities.

Well-known for real estate in Cambodia, Prince Holding Group, which is the parent of Sihanoukville-based Canopy Sands Development, took it upon itself to raise awareness of the importance of handwashing in Sihanoukville, a province that looks all set to welcome visitors from around the world.

Led by Neak  Oknha Chen Zhi Cambodia, a Chinese-Cambodian tycoon, Prince Holding Group has been particularly vigilant over the past twelve months and boasts that it fully vaccinated its workforce and has yet to report a Covid-related fatality.

Chen Zhi Cambodia even donated funds in 2020 to help Cambodia purchase 1 million Sinovac vaccines.

To get past the latest (and hopefully one of the final) stage of the pandemic, we need similar examples of strong business leadership and take care of the vulnerable segments of society like those with medical ailments and the elderly.

Till now, Cambodia has registered just over 120,000 cases with more than three thousand dead. It could have been a lot worse but a combination of public and private sector leadership, a collectivist ethic and support from outside countries has minimized the pandemic-related fallout in both social and economic terms.

Let’s hope Omicron doesn’t change the narrative. 

By Hemant Kumar

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