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COVID in Cambodia’s shame culture

CMS missionaries David and Leoni Painter live in Cambodia, where they serve at Phnom Penh Bible School. Here they consider the social and spiritual consequences of Coronavirus on their nation. 

We are now more than a year into the pandemic, and we continue to see people around the world suffering—but not always in the same way. As outsiders, God has given us another opportunity to look at the culture we are immersed in from a fresh perspective.  

The ‘February 20th event’ and its consequences 

In mid-February, four sex workers who had recently arrived in Cambodia on an overseas flight bribed their way out of a quarantine centre, and proceeded to visit clients all around the city. This has become known as the ‘February 20th event’. Since then, Cambodia’s COVID infections have steadily climbed. After recording a minimal number of cases throughout 2020, the infection number peaked in May 2021 at about 12,000 cases.  

In mid-March, the Ministry of Health released a lengthy set of decrees, full of strict counter-measures and with heavy fines for breaches. This included bans on all meetings, bringing our small church gatherings to a halt and delaying the new Bible school semester by at least four weeks.  

As we write, the normally crowded local market is almost deserted. Many offices and all entertainment venues are closed. The government warnings are continuous: directed down the telephone as you wait to speak, broadcast along the street by megaphone, all over Facebook, and in signs along the streets.  

The shame of COVID 

Many people here are fraught with the fear of shame: the shame of being exposed as COVID positive, and the consequence of the government contact-tracing all your relatives and friends. To be found positive is not only to be exposed to embarrassment. It is to be despised as one lacking sufficient ‘karma’—a stain on your family and community.  

COVID and the church in Cambodia 

At one level the national Church has been decimated. Many local churches have hardly met for over a year. Financial support for ministry has reduced to a dribble, and many Christians have fallen out of the habit of meeting. We don’t know how many churches will actually meet once the restrictions are lifted. 

The question that continues to challenge us is: how can we be ambassadors for Christ in this difficult situation? How do we best manage our own feelings of fear and shame? How do we show understanding and kindness to those who are overwhelmed in their current predicament? 

The gospel and COVID 

Most importantly, how does the gospel of Christ address these fears?  

Overall, the experience of the last year has given us a better understanding of Christ as the one who endured shame—exposed in the most public of places, on an executioner’s cross, in full view of that city.  

If we are to understand the spiritual need of the people of Cambodia, we need to “Fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” to rule in glory. (Hebrews 12:2) 

May God enable believers in Cambodia to show the glory of Christ as we endure suffering together, and seek ways to point to Jesus—the one who carries the shame of our sin in his own atoning death. 


Pray that Christians in Cambodia, including CMS missionaries Dave and Leoni Painter and others, will be able to testify to the grace and mercy of Christ in this time of Coronavirus.