A Viral Escalation

The nation’s leader earns less than $1,000 per month.  Yet he has a helipad on the roof of his city home, multiple luxury vehicles, travels frequently by private helicopter shielded by two military helicopters leading and following, travels overseas frequently, and his family have homes in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and beyond.  When you have money, lifestyle visas are easy to come by regardless of character.

It is common in countries where corruption is well established for official salaries to differ vastly from true income.  When a leader sets the benchmark, their ministries follow suit.  Public servants earning well under $1,000 per month drive luxury cars, live in fancy houses and send their children overseas for expensive western educations.  It’s hard to fathom how this actually works but my small glimpses from the consumer’s end are well demonstrated by one woman’s story.

A couple of years ago she developed an ascending painful infection on her legs.  Working as a street seller in a slum, her daily income precariously fed the family until she could no longer mobilise and was forced to seek medical attention.  Her doctor asked her “how can I help you if you don’t pay me?”.  Her 15yo daughter quit school to work as a waitress for $120 per month to cover the family income while her mother was incapacitated.  Then her doctor received $4,000 in cash borrowed from multiple sources including neighbours, family and the bank.  Then he treated her disfiguring, crippling infection.

Her youngest, bright and bouncing primary school aged daughter led us through the narrow alleys and up the broken staircase into their tiny single room in the slum.  My Cambodian colleague wanted to see if there was some way I could help or advise.  There really wasn’t.  Badly scarred legs were almost healed and she’d been shown physiotherapy exercises to help keep the joints supple and improve her mobility.  She remained housebound and was still crawling to mobilise, so the $120 per month that her daughter was earning had to feed the family as well as repay the various loans.  A lifetime commitment of loans to pay for a single, unexplained health complaint.  Her only request was “could you support us with some monthly food so that we don’t fall behind in our loan repayments”.  I have regular dreams about her.

When we left her home that morning, I thought I’d met my suffering for the day.  But we walked back into the alleyways, around a few corners, and met a woman lying on her deathbed.  A wooden table in a narrow, dirt floored alley, dying in pain with no income to afford analgesia.  But that’s another story altogether.

There is some evidence that warmer temperatures and higher humidity, such as Cambodia experiences at this time of year, impacts the viability of some coronaviruses.  The virus is also spread by droplets coughed out by infectious people.  These droplets remain suspended in the air for much shorter periods of time when the air is hotter and heavier.  This supports the idea that the virus is (so far) not transmitting easily in Cambodia and is not a big threat.  The mass panic on display in Cambodia is probably quite unjustified, but of course influenced heavily by the same global panic impacting toilet paper sales, stock markets and human behaviours worldwide.  Recently many dozens of panic stricken people crowded around the only laboratory in Cambodia able to test for Covid19.  When turned away from being tested because they didn’t fit the criteria, a small protest erupted which included threats to burn the laboratory down!

Meanwhile their political leaders have now pledged more than tenfold, their initial commitment of $30 million, escalating to $400 million in the “fight” against Covid19.  The decision will likely be unquestioned because of the level of public fear.  It is early days to say for sure, that this virus is probably not establishing in any meaningful way, but it’s certainly also early days to devote 25% of an already duplicitous national budget to nothing more than a theoretical threat.  The revenue will come without cutting salaries, meaning that already-deficient services and materials are the focus of cuts.  Where will all this extra money actually go, I have been asking myself….

This Reuters article from October 2016 answers the question to some degree.


Listen to the people who cannot speak

Over recent weeks I have listened on to Hollywood celebrities and social media stars calling for donations to the bush fire cause in Australia, as friends in Europe and US have asked me where I recommend their bushfire donations be directed.  My response has been “give it to people in countries who need it and suffer in silence, in lieu of adding to the many millions being sent to a wealthy nation”.  I have felt guilty saying it but I would feel more guilty not saying it.  And then a friend forwarded me this article, which articulates what I have fumbled to say.

Thank you Andrew MacLeod!

A bit rich: Should Cambodia and less-wealthy nations donate to our bushfires recovery?

I have to admit I was embarrassed, to be sitting in a hotel room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and to see an advertisement raising money for the Australian bushfires.

The ad run by Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation, showed graphic images and asked people to urgently donate to support the foundation’s work following the bushfires.

Given Australia’s comparative global wealth and with millions of poorer people in crisis, is it right for Australia to accept foreign donations to ease our pain?

Should we humbly but gratefully accept the millions raised overseas or should we recognise that we can and should pay for ourselves?

Do not take this as me being unsympathetic to Australia.

I understand the tragedy.

Australia is facing one of the fronts of climate change and we are facing a terrible fire season.

Fires are not far from my brother’s farm, but fortunately heading away from him.

But to see us asking for funds from Cambodia?

Back when I worked in humanitarian assistance for the United Nations, we had a saying: “Do not give aid by loudest voice. Listen to the people who cannot speak”.

It was an important saying as people with access to communication could complain loudly and perhaps rightly of their plight, while the most vulnerable would often be trapped without phones or internet and would starve in silence.

While Australians are communicating our plight to the rest of the world, the same cannot be said for those suffering fire in Congo, humanitarian catastrophes in Yemen, natural disasters in Philippines, Puerto Rico and the ongoing refugee crisis affecting at least 65 million people around the world.

Australians are wealthy, allowing us to reach out to other countries and engage their empathy to help us.

We are capable and we have a loud voice with a message of tragedy.

Australia is a rich country and, by some measures, the richest in the world. We are a loud voice. But our voice also has responsibility.

The bushfires in Australia have mobilised the generosity of Australians and foreigners alike to donate to our emergency and its aftermath.

People are rightly concerned and impacted about the millions of hectares being burnt, the carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, the tragic sight of burned koalas and fleeing kangaroos.

Livelihoods, houses and lifestyles are being harmed or destroyed too.

But I believe Australia has the resources and Australia can and should pay for itself.

There are millions of victims of natural disasters and climate in other countries whose voices are not heard.

These other millions may not be able to afford the publicity and may not be able to garner the sympathy and empathy of other rich western countries.

They may not be able to post on social media photos of fires, floods, or animals suffering horrible deaths because they may not access social media.

I am not saying we should avoid collaborative partnerships with foreign fire services to share equipment in the off season.

Countries like Australia, US, Spain and others should continue to share fire-fighting equipment and personnel as our fire seasons are not concurrent. These are sensible partnerships.

I am also not saying that individuals should be left to look after themselves.

Australians are generous people and should donate to Australia. Our communities can and should come together. Those inside Australia should keep donating and helping our own people.

But for those outside Australia I say: “Please donate to disasters where victims cannot afford smartphones, internet or perhaps even enough food.

“Search for those who cannot be heard. Feel for us in Australia, but use our plight to assist those with neither voice, nor actor at the Golden Globes nor tennis player to give up a small amount of his money each ace, nor a musician willing to give up the takings from an Australian concert.”

We should not be using our tragedy to divert funds or take funds from those massively less well off than us – like those in Cambodia.

And to Scott Morrison and the Australian government I have an even stronger message: To them I say, ‘Shame on you’.

Shame that you are not doing enough to help the states.

Shame that you are not providing more funds or taking sufficient action on climate change.

And shame on you for not mobilising the pride of Australia to say to those overseas ‘Thank you for your generosity, but please direct it to those with greater need than ourselves’.

Australia is a rich country. We can and should pay for ourselves.

Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to Kings College London, Chairman of Griffin Law, a non-executive director to Australian and US companies, and a former high-level UN official

Link to the article at New Daily

Pre-Departure Refurbishments

Sadly I’m returning to Australia after four very fast months in Cambodia.  The last few days have been busy tidying up loose ends.  Yesterday I had a final child health meeting in a Phnom Penh neighbourhood of busy alleyways encircling a very large pagoda.  Tuk tuk rooftop scraped past truck walls, moto handlebars knocked my arm rest, pedestrians stepped into doorways as we mounted the crowded sidewalk to make way in the single-vehicle-width alley for a third vehicle to squeeze by.  How we ever got in and back out of there without at least running over a set of toes, claws or paws eludes me, but we did.

Post-meeting, Job Number 2 was to get the hole in the back leg of my trousers mended.  Tuk tuk understood and two corners away he spotted a shopfront sewing machine, pulled over and directed me out of the tuk tuk with wave of the hand.  A very effeminate young man with a beautiful smile looked at my trousers, laughed nervously and said “Sorry Madame, I think I don’t know how”.  That seems to be code for “You might not like my work so I won’t risk it”.  Tuk tuk laughed as I returned, trousers in hand, shaking my head.

Slow surveillance of the hundreds of street-side businesses as we traveled to our destination soon found another sewing machine, this time at a home business offering street food on plastic stools at a tin table on the sidewalk while you watch your tailoring in motion.  A serious man sat at a very old foot-pedaled machine behind a glass cabinet displaying meatballs and salad.  I squeezed between the table, cabinet and a couple of motos to reach him.  As he realised I was headed his way he looked progressively more startled.  Sometimes launching into Khmer is unnecessary.  Standing before a tailor holding a pair of trousers with a hole in them is one such time, so as his stress levels increased my own dwindled.  He took the trousers, prodded the hole, turned the leg inside out to investigate further, then made a zig-zag motion with his finger over the hole, to ask my permission for a rough-shod job.  I nodded enthusiastically.

He re-threaded his machine with dark cotton, as I looked around the front room of his house.  Three women were perched on stools behind the meatball cabinet, chatting and laughing.  Three small children were splayed across the tiled floor, also chatting and laughing.  The mandatory hammock was slung in a corner of the room as the only furniture except a television against one wall.  The whole house front was open to the street courtesy of heavy metal security doors slid all the way open.  What would be a sidewalk in Australia was restaurant and motorbike park.  With the cotton organised he looked around the floor of the room, spotted a remnant of an old hem among the cuttings strewn on the tiles that seemed about the right colour, grabbed it, cut it to size, and sewed it across the hole in my trousers.  It took all of 60 seconds from start to finish.  Fifty cents later, my trousers and I were ready for the next stop: my final visit to the beautician for one last refurbishment.

It’s been a wistful few days saying not-goodbye and not-farewell, but see-you-soon to people. But at 39C in 70% humidity with hours of power cuts everyday (which courtesy of staying in an area where some powerful names also live exempts me from the experience), I am ready for an Australian winter re-boot.  There are many worthwhile stories that I haven’t yet told, and cannot do justice to right now.  Tomorrow the wife of the disabled man who works washing dishes at night for $2.50 an event will find out that she can buy the motorbike she needs to get to work and home again, safely.

On Monday the small girl whose hands are bent in place at the middle knuckle as a sequelae of TB meningitis will receive some small balls to roll around in her hands to work her hand and arm muscles.

Last time I saw her one year old neighbour whose mother is in jail and father ran away after selling someone else’s moto to pay a debt, we weighed her at a busy child health clinic.  Amidst the chaos after she was weighed, I was shocked to see her being put back into a “dress” made of patches of cloth loosely pieced together with large hand stitches of what looked like string, reminiscent of something out of Dickensian London.  Her carer, an unrelated elderly woman living on a wall-less bamboo platform approximately 2m x 2m on the riverbank, spent her days begging in the community to get enough food for her small charge.  We managed to find an organisation able to support the child’s nutrition but I couldn’t let her continue getting around in that rag dress, so on Monday she will receive two new little outfits.

I would be lying if I denied thinking about the hundreds of millions of dollars pledged to reconstruct the burned bricks and mortar of Notre Dame de Paris in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.  If only human life, human potential and human dignity held the same sway.


One of the things I have learned about the world since coming to Cambodia, is that there must be millions of people whose lives could be transformed by something as simple as a wheelchair, but who instead are confined to a tiny space by their inability to walk.  I have met a surprising number of people trapped in this way, usually without a diagnosis or access to any meaningful care.  The fact that an NGO might exist who can supply a free wheelchair is not necessarily of any benefit in many parts of the poor world.  In a place like Cambodia for example, services are not easily publicised; people’s capacity to access transportation to attend services is limited by their poverty; and they are often very hesitant to attend services where they have to deal with educated, confident and often intimidating professionals.

Today I had the privilege of arriving at a client’s home with the wheelchair he had been waiting on for a month since we sourced it for him, but which he has needed for almost two years when he first became house-bound due to his paralysis of unknown cause.  He was sitting in the doorway of his tiny rental room eating a small plate of plain rice when we arrived.  He only noticed me when I spoke “Salam Alaikum”.  He looked up and replied “Alaikum Salam”, before averting his eyes to the tuk tuk driver behind me who was pushing his new wheelchair.  His face transformed to a bright smile!  We assisted him into the chair and he disappeared down the alleyway at lightning speed.  Some days are really worth getting out of bed for, and today was one of them.

KF 22 Mar Wheelchair (2)

The concept of “transportation” took on new meaning for me in 2013 when I first came to Cambodia.  Firstly, the scenes of people traveling on the roads were mind boggling.  Secondly our program included a client assessment with social workers to determine whether transportation support was indicated.  This involved offering less than $5 to those who otherwise could not afford to attend their appointments.  Who could not afford $5 in a single month?, was my thought when I heard this discussed for the first time.  As it turns out, many millions cannot!

Yesterday as we visited our various clients around this particular slum area, my colleague informed the poorest of them, who often have no food, that “a foreigner” has been seen at a particular Phnom Penh market, choosing 6 people per day and offering them a meal.  If they go to this particular market, they could get chosen and receive a meal.  One older lady with missing front teeth and visible malnutrition replied that she didn’t know this market?  She then said “I have lived in Phnom Penh my whole life but I don’t know where anything is.  I heard that the riverside is a really nice area to visit but I have no ability to go there”.  The area she refers to is literally 1km (as the crow flies) across the river from where we were standing.  But she would have to travel about 5km to reach it, as it’s across the shore.  Similarly, most Cambodians dream of visiting Angkor Wat, the legacy their ancestors built which is a cause of much pride.  Yet most Cambodians have never been there.  A young French man turned up for dinner with some friends recently and they asked him, what did you see at Angkor Wat?  He replied “a lot of stone”, to the bemusement of the Khmer people at the table.  I have learned about Angkor Wat, that it is visited en masse by people from afar with plenty of money, for whom it has little meaning except tourism value; while those who live nearby, for whom it holds great significance, can only dream to visit it.

The capacity to travel matters far more than those of us who never have to think about it, realise.  There is a reason that in Cambodia you see people traveling in all manner of dangerous forms.  A few weeks ago this particular mini van caught my attention from my seat on a large bus as they were leaving a roadside stop and driving out onto a busy highway.  If I was paying $4.75 for my safe seat, what were these passengers paying and what was their income, that $4.75 was not an option?  These are questions that I continue to spend hours wondering about everyday.

KC005 (2)

Cool Fires

Cambodia is in the throes of “the Hot season”, better known in tropical Australia as “the Build-Up”.  It is hot and extremely humid, with clouds building up in the sky but very little rain, so that the humidity just builds and builds.  Even the locals are suffering.  Tonight, leaving my apartment, our security guard was shirtless and wiping sweat from his brow with his t-shirt.  Earlier today during a home visit, a 12yo girl was covered in pearls of sweat.  I always say that you know it’s truly hot when even the locals are feeling it.

A nationwide energy crisis is being blamed on the long Dry season which has depleted the hydropower dams supplying much of the country’s electricity.  Phnom Penh began experiencing daily power outages about a week ago, just as I was leaving for a weekend away.  It’s a real killer when your electric fan turns off in this weather.  Thankfully I live in an apartment block with a generator that kicks in with every power cut.  If I am home I often don’t know if the power is out or not.  On Monday morning, oblivious to the power cuts that had been happening like clockwork all weekend, I walked down the street to the beauty salon to get my nails done.  The girl turned me away saying “Sorry, can  you come back, because we have no fire?”.  No fire?  “Yes, do you know, no fire?”.  I could not imagine why she needed a fire to do my nails but I told myself “because Cambodia” and walked back home in blissful ignorance.  Relaying my confusion to a friend later in the day, I learned that the direct translation of “electricity” in Khmer, is the same word as “fire”.  So the reason we’re all suffering in the heat around here, is because we don’t have enough fire.

Today I did some home visits to a number of clients with my colleague.  We followed up on two high risk babies who are both doing well; visited our paralysed client who continues to wait for his wheelchair; and searched unsuccessfully again for “Face Man” who was out on the water, fishing.  A family I have met a few times who are dealing with a number of crises asked us to visit.  Two twenty-something brothers were released from prison a few days ago.  They were arrested for drug possession but proclaimed innocence with a credible story about the drugs being secreted over a small brick wall onto their property during a police raid in the slum where they live.  Their imprisonment placed the family under financial strain as their 19yo sister needed to travel to the prison every few days to supply them with food.  This meant she was not able to work as reliably as usual and so the family took a US$200 loan to deal with rent and other expenses.  The moneylender takes $40 in interest each month, keeping them in constant debt.

The brothers came home a few days ago and their sister asked us for a clinical review.  Both have Chicken Pox-like rashes which have become infected.  One of them only on his lower legs, but the other reported having a very high fever with coryzal symptoms at the beginning, and the rash is all over his torso and legs, with extremely swollen lower legs, ankles and feet, probably due to the sores becoming infected.  I reassured them it was nothing to panic about and referred them for review by our MD.  I then explained that infections are easy to pass around in prisons where it can be crowded, and enquired if it was crowded where they were?  Their cell was 8m x 8m and housed anywhere between 110 to 120 people!  When I asked how this was possible, they said that they had to sleep lying on their side and had a rotation for lying down / standing up.  There was no “fire” so I am left imagining how it’s possible to survive in such torrid conditions, with no air movement except the heat of each other’s breath and, as my friend Chom calls it, “body gas”.  If all they came home with was infected Chicken Pox, I guess they’re pretty lucky and I have a new understanding now of just why diseases like Tuberculosis run rampant through prison populations.

A few different people send, or have sent, money to me for Cambodia and entrust me with deciding where to channel it.  I’m not sure if any of them imagined, or would approve, of paying off a family debt caused by two young men’s imprisonment.  But that’s exactly where some of the money is going.  The potential of impoverished youth all over the world is destroyed by the perils of poverty.  In the wake of New Zealand’s terror attack last week, the phrase coined by PM Jacinda Ardern seems appropriate to so many violations against humanity:

They Are us