More than 100 NGOs urged the Cambodian government on Tuesday to direct microfinance institutions (MFIs) and lenders to suspend all loan repayments and accumulate interest rates in the least three months to allow borrowers to shelter at home during the country’s latest and most dangerous coronavirus outbreak.
Cambodia, which is virtually unaffected by coronavirus, recorded its first death from COVID-19 – a viral disease – last month, a year until the date the World Health Organization considers This is a pandemic. Since then, 22 people have died, and more than 2,800 people tested positive.
In a statement, NGOs noted that borrowers could not avoid the possibility of exposure to coronavirus because they feared losing their land or home if they failed to repay the loan.
They say that the apparel, tourism, entertainment and construction sectors have been particularly affected by the pandemic – sectors employing hundreds of thousands of women, who hold 75% of microfinance loans. tissue in Cambodia. However, farmers, migrant workers, poor communities, informal workers, traders, small business people and street vendors “have also seen a sharp drop in income,” according to the statement. “Very few people are forgiven” in the economic downturn.
“The government has taken measures to alleviate some of the suffering caused by more than a year of economic turmoil, including cash transfers to the poor and worker subsidies,” said NGOs. garment.
“But the government has not acted as quickly as possible to bail out microfinance borrowers. Last year, the government’s request for MFIs and banks to only provide relief to certain sectors without clear guidance on what borrowers are eligible or what type of aid. provided, has allowed the finance industry to set its own rules for restructuring loans ”.
Therefore, banks and microfinance organizations are temporarily suspending principal payments, but still continue to collect and calculate interest on loans.
“This has resulted in record returns for some small loan providers as household income continues to decline due to… pandemic and greater debt burden on borrowers after the restructuring of they are finished. This is not the real relief ”.
In the midst of the latest outbreak, NGOs have called for “generous bailout,” saying the incomplete restructuring for about 10% of small loans “is not close enough to cope. to the scale of this crisis ”.
“We are asking the government to help millions of people by ordering the profitable financial sector to help with the economic burdens,” they said.
“Borrowers are losing land, getting no medical care, and risking their health and safety during a pandemic to pay off these debts. The three-month suspension, with the possibility of an additional extension, will help borrowers stay at home, safe and improve the overall situation of the country ”.
Call for comprehensive policy
Ny Sokha, with local human rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Language Service that the government should come up with a policy to support those struggling during the pandemic.
“This request is being made in this particularly difficult situation due to curfew and quarantine,” he said. “It is seriously affecting people’s living standards.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the request of the NGOs was not possible because “Cambodia is a free economic market”.
He said creditors and creditors need to define a way forward between them.
“People cannot count on government because they didn’t consult us when they borrowed money,” he said. “They need to take responsibility for their own destiny.”
Microfinance Association of Cambodia (CMA) spokesperson Kaing Tongngy told RFA that CMA members were also affected by the pandemic, leaving them facing high operating costs and a dramatic drop in revenue.
“We consider our customers to be long-term customers, so when they have financial problems, we gather our resources to help them as much as we can, even if that means,” he said. with our loss of revenue.
“However, we are not able to help them on a large scale because we are having problems at our end.”
The measures are carefully considered
The call from non-governmental organizations came when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a “ban[ing] villagers temporarily travel from one province to another for 14 days from 7 April to 20 April to stop the spread of coronavirus, ”as well as shut down all tourist attractions. The door lock does not provide some exceptions for essential travel.
Hun Sen also ordered the Ministry of Health to prepare COVID-19 patients with “mild symptoms” for home treatment, due to the local increase in disease transmission. He said Cambodia would adjust US and European measures in the treatment of COVID-19 patients when hospitals were unable to respond due to lack of beds.
“We cannot accept all patients when the number of patients recovering less than the number of patients who are currently sick,” he said.
“In this situation, we won’t have enough [room in] Hospitals, so the solution is to keep people with mild symptoms at home. “
But even as the government introduced new measures to stop the spread of the virus, it faced Tuesday’s criticism from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) for The group’s previous policies attacked the privacy of everyone and everyone else. the rights.
In a statement, HRW said that the government’s “Stop COVID-19” QR Code system, deployed by the Ministry of Posts and Telematics and the Ministry of Health on 20 February to assist in tracking contact of cases The new COVID-19 is too intrusive and urges ministries to explain how the data is collected, who has access to what, and how it is secure and for how long.
“Cambodia’s QR code system is ripe for abuse of rights because it lacks privacy protections for personal data,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Regional Director for Asia at HRW.
“These concerns are heightened by the government’s increased online surveillance of Cambodians since the pandemic began, putting government critics and activists at greater risk.”
The Ministry of Post and Telematics and other relevant ministries did not respond to questions about how the system should work when contacted by HRW in mid-March, the group said.
Privacy is at risk
According to the Post and Telecommunication Ministry’s Facebook page, the system is “voluntary”, but “participation is highly recommended.” When users scan the QR code upon entering the facility, they will receive a six-digit code to their mobile phone via text message, which they need to enter into their phone. Approximately 155,000 establishments have registered to use the system and a number of provincial governments are using it at provincial border gates as part of the mandatory screening for COVID-19 symptoms.
Health Minister Mam Bunheng said that the QR code system was used to record people’s movements at registered locations without violating their privacy, but the Ministry of Post and Telematics later said that the system would provide the government with information about the user’s location, allowing authorities to identify users and whether they were in violation of the two-week quarantine requirements.
“Creating a location log of people reveals sensitive details about identity, location, behavior, associations and privacy-violating activities,” HRW said. existing government intrusion monitoring.
“Cambodia should enact data protection laws that will govern and protect the use, collection and retention of data in accordance with international privacy standards and other rights.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Language Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.