Stories from the COVAX vaccination frontlines

As vaccinations roll out across Cambodia, the UNICEF team met with healthcare staff and early recipients to learn their feelings at being part of history.

Jaime Gill
©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
22 March 2021

Photo above: Kang Langny, 68-year-old Phnom Penh resident receives vaccine. 

Phnom Penh, March 2021 - "It's like being born a second time," says Kang Langny, a 68-year-old grandmother living in Phnom Penh, just ten minutes after receiving the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccination. Her husband, 72-year-old Chun Thea cheerfully nods his agreement from beside his wife, having been vaccinated just a few minutes after. “It’s like this gives us a new life, one where we don’t need to live in fear any more," Mrs. Kang continues, and smiles broadly.

The couple, married for 50 years, are among the first wave of Cambodians over 60 to receive AstraZeneca SII vaccines through the COVAX Facility. COVAX is the coalition co-led by the World Health Organisation, CEPI, Gavi, in partnership with UNICEF with the goal of ensuring the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally. Nine days earlier, 324,000 doses from COVAX had arrived in Phnom Penh, the first of a total of 1.1 million doses to be provided by the end of May, with that number reaching seven million by the end of the year.

“It’s a huge challenge for all of us working in healthcare,” says Doctor Prak Sovann, who is the technical health bureau chief of Mekong Operational District and is responsible for coordinating and managing vaccinations for many hundreds of people a day. He is on the frontlines of an enormous operation. UNICEF is supporting the Ministry of Health with its COVID-19 vaccination operations, including in the areas of logistics, planning, risk communication and community engagement, with generous support from the Czech Republic and Government of Japan.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
Doctor Prak Sovann, the technical health bureau chief of Mekong Operational District, responsible for hundreds of people a day.

“The administration of the vaccination roll-out, particularly registration and reporting, is very complex,” continues Dr Prak. “Also, the increase in transmission in Cambodia has increased our workload at the same time.” Dr Prak is referring to a recent surge in COVID cases in Cambodia, after almost a year where community transmission of COVID-19 had been much lower than in most countries in the world. The increase in cases coincided with the vaccine roll-out and Dr Prak believes led to a spike in demand that resulted in many people turning up to hospitals for vaccines but without appointments.

One response to the situation was to ask for greater support from community leaders, who could identify and meet with priority candidates within their communities, such as the elderly, and ensure they understood their eligibility and wanted the vaccine. The list of persons identified would then be shared with the nearest vaccination site for planning, where people would then be scheduled and informed when to come in. This led to fewer people turning up without appointments, reduction of overcrowded conditions and better organisation of the vaccination site.

©UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Chansereypich Seng
Phork Narin is not only a vaccine recipient, but also a village leader helping organise his community to receive their shots.

One of these village leaders is 67-year-old Phork Narin. We meet him just after he receives his own vaccine. “I feel a bit guilty being here,” he smiles, while sitting in a waiting room for thirty minutes to be sure he doesn’t experience any serious vaccine side effects. “I want to be back in the village, telling people when to get vaccinated. But it’s important I am here now in line. I’m getting vaccinated for three reasons, after all. To protect myself. To protect my family. And to protect my community.”

Mr Phork says he is happy that there is little vaccine hesitancy in his community. "It's been very hard with this virus, this hidden enemy. So many people want to get vaccinated, my family is especially keen and really wanted me to come. As it is such a new vaccine, I felt a bit of fear when I came today, but then I remembered how many people want these vaccines all over the world and so I overcame my worries."

Mr Phork has seen rumours about vaccines being ineffective or even dangerous on Facebook, but dismissed them. "I know that most of it is about politics or people not being honest. And anyway, I saw how safe the vaccines are for myself. My son is a frontline worker and has already received his two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and he has never been healthier. You should see him eat!”

Dr Prak is encouraged by the positive attitude towards vaccines. "When the vaccines first arrived there were definitely more fears from patients, but people have seen with their own eyes that they are safe so now more people want them,” he explains. “This is important for more than just health. COVID has slowed down so many of the services our country needs, whether immunisations or help for the urban poor. Families have become poorer and have worse nutrition. Worst of all, children have missed out on education. We have to get the vaccines out so that we can help our people again.”

Mrs. Kang has felt the presence of COVID-19 every day for the last year and it has affected her mental health. Although she and her husband had enough savings to survive economically, she was very aware of her vulnerability to COVID-19 as an older person. "We don't have anyone to help us with things like our shopping," she says, "so I had to go the market myself and I tried to be safe, but I was always afraid. Now that I have got the vaccine, I’m released from that.”

Her husband shares her relief at being vaccinated. He explains that while most of his peers want to be vaccinated, he does have friends who were hesitant about vaccines at first. "I play table tennis to keep active, and my partner didn't want to get the vaccine. But he changed his mind, perhaps because he saw no one was harmed. What I want to say to anyone who doesn't want to get vaccinated is that vaccines are safe and we should feel lucky to be one of the first people in Asia to get them. If we all get vaccinated, the whole country will be stronger and less fearful going forward."