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Cambodia's ties with China helped it achieve a high COVID vaccination rate

NOEL KING, HOST:

Fewer than 3% of people in low-income countries have gotten even a single shot of the COVID vaccine. Cambodia, though, is an exception. It's one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, ahead of richer countries including the U.S. and the U.K. Michael Sullivan brought us the story of how.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Sometimes, especially if you're poor, it pays to have the right friends. In Cambodia's case - China, the two countries growing much closer in the past decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: And friends show up for friends. Back in February 2020, when the pandemic was taking off, with nations worldwide banning flights from China, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen saw an opportunity. He made a high-profile state visit to Beijing to show his solidarity with China during a time of uncertainty. And China's leader, Xi Jinping, was grateful.

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PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through interpreter) Today, your special visit to China vividly demonstrates that China and Cambodia are all-weather friends. I sincerely appreciate it.

SULLIVAN: And when China started exporting vaccines, Cambodia was among the first to receive them.

VIRAK OU: Hun Sen's making a trip to Beijing during the initial Chinese outbreak, that's just a bold move, but also, I mean, Hun Sen is a strong man. He's definitely cunning in understanding the situations.

SULLIVAN: Virak Ou heads the Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum. He says Hun Sen also gets credit for going all in on the Chinese vaccines, even before they won approval from the World Health Organization, securing an abundant supply well ahead of other, wealthier countries.

BENJAMIN ZAWACKI: When you look at Cambodia, what it's been able to do in absolute terms vis-a-vis the vaccines and certainly relative to its neighbors, it's impressive on its face.

SULLIVAN: Benjamin Zawacki is a senior analyst with The Asia Foundation in Bangkok.

ZAWACKI: And that's a perfect example of Hun Sen's close relations with China paying dividends in a way that no one might have expected.

SULLIVAN: But it's not just having access to vaccines, as the U.S. has learned; it's getting them into people's arms, too. And in Cambodia, there is very little vaccine hesitancy and lots of volunteers eager to help. Jessica Manning is an infectious disease scientist with the National Institutes of Health, based in the capital, Phnom Penh. She says Cambodia's success is due in part to systems already in place to combat malaria and other illnesses.

JESSICA MANNING: Being able to rely upon those same systems that deliver malaria treatment out to the farthest frontiers and really being able to move from that district level to the health center level, to the health post level, to go the last mile.

SULLIVAN: But human rights groups say the authoritarian Hun Sen, more than three decades in power and counting, has also used the pandemic to crack down even further on political dissent. Human Rights Watch accused the regime of leaving people to starve during heavy-handed lockdowns in the capital, Phnom Penh, this spring. Both criticisms are legitimate, says Virak Ou, but so, he says, are the results - with more than 80% of the population fully vaccinated, with booster shots already underway.

OU: But I think the vaccine seems to be doing the one job that we are hoping for it to do, and that is the preventions of death and severe symptoms.

SULLIVAN: And that, he says, will help Cambodia to restart its economy and reopen the country to tourists sooner and safer than its neighbors. For that, he says, both Hun Sen and China deserve credit.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "RUINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.