NGOs call on Cambodia to suspend debt and interest payments amid latest coronavirus outbreak – Radio Free Asia
More than 100 NGOs on Tuesday called on the Cambodian government to order microfinance institutions (MFIs) and lenders to suspend all loan repayments and accrued interest for at least three months to allow borrowers to take refuge in their homes for the last and the country’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.
Cambodia, which had remained largely free from the coronavirus, recorded its first death from COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – last month, a year to the day that the World Health Organization has reported it. called it a pandemic. Since then, 22 people have died and more than 2,800 people have tested positive.
In a statement, NGOs noted that borrowers cannot avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus because they fear losing their land or home if they cannot repay their debt.
They said the clothing, tourism, entertainment and construction sectors have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, sectors that employ hundreds of thousands of women, who hold 75 percent of microfinance loans in Cambodia . However, farmers, migrant workers, poor communities, informal workers, traders, small entrepreneurs and street vendors “have also seen their incomes drop,” the statement said, meaning that “very few were spared “amid the economic downturn.
“The government has already taken steps to alleviate some of the suffering caused by more than a year of economic turmoil,” NGOs said, including money transfers to the poor and subsidies to garment workers.
“But the government has not taken such swift action to provide relief to microfinance borrowers. The government’s demand last year for MFIs and banks to implement relief for certain sectors only, without clear guidelines as to which borrower is eligible or what type of relief to offer, effectively allowed the financial sector to set its own rules for restructuring loans.
NGOs said that as a result, banks and MFIs suspended principal payments, but continued to collect and calculate interest on loans.
“This has resulted in record profits for some microcredit providers as household incomes continue to decline due to the… pandemic and a greater debt burden on borrowers after their restructuring is completed. It is not a real relief.
In the midst of the latest outbreak, NGOs have called for “large scale aid”, claiming that incomplete restructuring of around 10% of microloans “is far from sufficient to cope with the scale of this crisis. “.
“We call on the government to help millions of people by ordering the profitable financial sector to help shoulder some of the economic burden,” they said.
“Borrowers are losing their land, forgoing medical care and risking their health and safety during the pandemic to pay off these debts. A three-month suspension, with the possibility of a further extension, will help borrowers stay at home, stay safe and improve the overall situation in the country. “
Call for a comprehensive policy
Ny Sokha, with local rights advocacy group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer service that the government should develop a policy to help those in need during the pandemic.
“This request is being made during this particularly difficult situation due to curfews and quarantines,” he said. “It seriously affects people’s standard of living. “
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that NGO demands are impossible to honor because “Cambodia is a free economic market”.
He said debtors and creditors need to figure out a way forward between them.
“People cannot rely on the government because they did not consult us when they took out the loans,” he said. “They must be responsible for their own destiny.”
Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA) spokesperson Kaing Tonnggy told RFA that CMA members are also affected by the pandemic, which has left them facing high operational costs and a sharp decline of their income.
“We view our clients as long-time clients, so when they have financial problems, we will pull together our resources to help them as much as possible, even if it means we are losing revenue,” he said.
“However, we cannot help them on a large scale because we have problems on our side.”
The NGO appeal came as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an order “banning[ing] villagers to travel temporarily from one province to another during the 14 days between April 7 and April 20 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus ”, as well as the closure of all tourist destinations. The lockdown provides certain exceptions for essential travel.
Hun Sen also ordered the Ministry of Health to prepare COVID-19 patients with “mild symptoms” for treatment at home, due to an increase in local transmissions. He said Cambodia will adapt US and European measures to treat COVID-19 patients when hospitals cannot accommodate them due to a lack of beds.
“We cannot accommodate all patients when fewer patients recover than those who get sick,” he said.
“In this situation, we will not have enough [room in] hospitals, the solution is to keep people with mild symptoms treated at home. “
But even as the government introduced new measures to stem the spread of the virus, it was criticized Tuesday by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) for its earlier policies which the group said were an assault on the human rights system. right of individuals to privacy and other human rights. rights.
In a statement, HRW said the government’s “Stop COVID-19” QR code system, implemented on February 20 by the Post and Telecommunications Ministry and the Health Ministry to help with contact tracing of newcomers. COVID-19 case is too intrusive and has urged ministries to explain how collected data is used, who has access to it and for what purpose, how data is secured and how long it is kept.
“Cambodia’s QR code system is ripe for rights violations because it lacks personal data privacy protections,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at HRW.
“These concerns are exacerbated by the government’s enhanced online surveillance of Cambodians since the start of the pandemic, putting government critics and activists at risk. “
The Post and Telecommunications Ministry and other relevant ministries did not respond to questions about the operation of the system when contacted by HRW in mid-March, the group said.
Privacy at risk
According to the Facebook page of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the system is “voluntary”, but “participation is strongly encouraged”. When users scan a QR code upon entering a facility, they receive a six-digit code on their mobile phone via text message, which they must enter on their phone. Some 155,000 facilities have registered to use the system and several provincial authorities are using it at provincial border crossings as part of mandatory screening for symptoms of COVID-19.
Health Minister Mam Bunheng said the QR code system is used to record the movements of people in registered places without violating their privacy, but the Post and Telecommunications Ministry later said the system would provide the government information about the user’s location, allowing authorities to identify the user and whether they violate the two-week quarantine requirements.
“The creation of a log of people’s locations reveals sensitive information about their identity, location, behavior, associations and activities that infringe the right to privacy, in addition to existing intrusive surveillance practices of the government, ”HRW said.
“Cambodia should enact a data protection law that would regulate and protect the use, collection and retention of data in accordance with international standards for confidentiality and other rights. “
Reported by the Khmer service of RFA. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.