When Cambodia’s prime minister greeted passengers on a cruise ship amid a coronavirus scare on Valentine’s Day, embraces were the order of the day. Protective masks were not. Not only did Prime Minister Hun Sen not wear one, assured that the ship was virus-free, his bodyguards ordered people who had donned masks to take them off. The next day, the US ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, who brought his own family to greet the passengers streaming off the ship, also went maskless.
But after hundreds of passengers had disembarked, one later tested positive for the coronavirus. Now, health officials worry that what Cambodia opened its doors to was the outbreak, and that the world may pay a price as passengers from the cruse ship Westerdam stream home. Before the Westerdam docked in Sihanoukville, fearful governments in other countries had turned the ship away at five ports of call even though the cruise operator, Holland America, assured officials that the ship’s passengers had been carefully screened.
It is too early to tell whether the decision to let hundreds of passengers from the Westerdam fly off has the makings of an epidemiological disaster. Cambodian health authorities said that 409 of the 2,257 passengers and crew had left Cambodia for their homes scattered across the globe. The rest remain in hotels in Phnom Penh, the capital, or on the ship. But deficiencies in screening for the coronavirus aboard the ship, along with continued complacency about the epidemic in Cambodia, are raising fears this small Southeast Asian nation could prove to be a surprising vector of transmission for a virus that has already killed more than 1,700 people, mostly in China, the epicentre of the outbreak. Many health experts urge people who have been in contact with coronavirus patients to self-quarantine for 14 days, lest they add another spoke to the contagion network. But on Monday, Hun Sen directed officials in Phnom Penh to treat passengers from the Westerdam to a sightseeing jaunt.
Health monitoring for the rest of the passengers was limited to a handful of temperature checks conducted with infrared thermometers, passengers said. In a statement, Holland America said that during one of those screenings, not a single person on board recorded an elevated temperature. On Monday, an announcement broadcast to passengers remaining on the Westerdam warned that they should avoid the ship’s hot deck and return to their air-conditioned rooms to avoid falsely high temperature readings.
Some health experts have questioned the efficacy of infrared thermometers, also known as temperature guns, saying they measure the heat emanating from the surface of the body, rather than core body temperature. Various environmental factors can distort thermometer gun reading, said Gary Strahan, who runs a small infrared device company in Texas. Read more about latest news from thailand.