Text and photos by Miguel Jeronimo
Dara(*) is an edjai, the local term in Khmer language to designate a street waste picker. In a country lacking a formal recycling system, he is one of the many thousands roaming the streets in search for aluminum cans or plastic bottles he can find to sell to collectors, composing the backbone of the recycling ecosystem. He is raising four children by himself, normally with an income of $5 per day. With the Covid19-related decrease of consumption brought by the closing down of restaurants, bars and other entertainment businesses, thus reducing the amount of recyclables he can find, and the increased difficulty in exporting the trash to Vietnam and Thailand due to border restrictions (Cambodia still doesn't own facilities to deal with its own waste), his income got reduced to half. Also an awareness of the lack of hygiene in his livelihood and the direct contact with other people's garbage is bringing him an anxiety over his own safety amidst this virus crisis.
Although the Coronavirus has not hit Cambodia hard health-wise, with the official numbers stating only 122 cases until mid -May (all recovered by now), its major toll on the economy and people's lives is only starting. No lock-down was imposed but certain sectors were required to close in order to halt the spread of the virus. The entertainment industry, with its bars, clubs and karaoke parlors being a large source of jobs, and especially the freezing of any tourism-related businesses (one of the three major industries in the country alongside garment factories and rice farming) are currently throwing thousands into unemployment. With no safety net or state-sponsored relief fund, this means families going through uncertain times in terms of food security or even having enough to pay the rent. Local NGOs have been reporting as well an increase in high-risk income-generation activities due to lack of alternatives, such as begging and sex work. Other sectors are in jeopardy as well, with street sellers being exposed to the virus and wet markets continuing to operate due to being a crucial source of cheap food for low-paid workers and families. Even though most of the sellers tried to cope with the virus by using masks, their constant exposure to people in tight places with no realistic implementation of social distance measures brings yet another source of anxiety and uncertainty for the informal sector.
Visiting marginalized communities, these stories keep piling up. One couple with a livelihood focused on producing and selling vegetables shared the difficulty of dealing with their business while having to take care of their children during the whole day – a consequence of the decision to close schools until November. In another house, a makeshift shack built with found wood and metal sheets, shared between two families totaling 15 people, Socheata(*) is trying to survive by continuing her small business of selling cooked snails on her mobile cart, a common street snack in the streets of Phnom Penh. In the morning, she goes to a lake in the outskirts of the city to collect them, spending the rest of the day roaming around the neighborhood looking for customers while scavenging for trash in search of some extra income. Her average of $7.50 earnings per day is now reduced to $2.50. Her husband is a motodop driver, the equivalent in Cambodia to a taxi service using just a motorbike, but his income suffered as well due to the lack of customers during these last months.
This is where the role of local NGOs can be crucial to not only keep the most vulnerable families afloat, but to foster their medium-term independence and sustainability. Besides emergency supplies such as rice and hygiene materials like soap, sanitary pads and baby diapers, Socheata(*) is receiving support from the NGO FriendsInternational to buy chickens and start a small poultry business as an alternative source of income. The local-based NGO (which also operates in other Southeast Asian low and middle income countries, with a focus on marginalized communities and child safety) is reaching out to 200 families (around 1,000 individuals) with emergency relief. In addition they train their 400 ChildSafe agents (e.g. tuk-tuk drivers they already employed as community members to be vigilant and report any violence or risk to children) to spread information about Covid19, with a reach of almost 30,000 people. Aiming for a more long-term approach, they have been also delivering training on soft skills for job interviews, workshops (such as electrical work, welding or beauty salon work), and often employing community members as outreach workers. Sopheak(*) is one of them. A rehabilitated drug user who has been trained on harm reduction practices, health prevention and hygiene awareness within the community where she's now a trusted member. Her husband used to have a job as a security guard but was laid off two weeks ago with no set date to return. With eight members in the family under her arm, she is one of the many every day warriors from the most vulnerable populations in the country going through this pandemic. With a lack of social security or resources for a safety net, it is often within the solidarity expressed in their communities and through small actions such as having some chickens to produce eggs, or a couple of plastic bottles found on the street to sell at the end of the day, which is enabling Cambodia to survive.
(*) Names changed to protect identity.