Can Scarecrows Scare Away COVID-19? 

As COVID-19 cases rise daily, rural Cambodians are turning to traditional methods to deter the virus.
  • Ou Sokmean
  • March 23, 2020 9:52 AM

Traditionally, scarecrows have been employed to ward off evil spirits and deadly diseases, but as the practice comes back into style with the COVID-19 outbreak, we investigate why people continue with this custom.

Amidst the imminent spread of this global pandemic, many scientific measures have been put to into action, with new lessons disseminated through social media and through teachings among communities. Wash your hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizers regularly, wear protective masks when sick and isolate yourselves if you develop symptoms of the virus.  These are some of the important guidelines published by world-class research institutes, like the World Health Organization. Despite the bountiful advances in medical equipment and procedures, not all people can get away with the idea of tradition and culture, which have been maintained for hundreds of years through generations. 

Scarecrows are among the common sights that can be seen mostly at the rice fields or farmlands. A stereotypical character that is commonly associated with the countryside, scarecrows have one job to do; scaring birds away to prevent them from eating the crops. But occasionally, scarecrows do mythically scare away something even deadlier than those Eurasian Sparrows. They are believed to scare away contagious diseases. 

This ancient practice has been once again popularized by the awareness of the coronavirus. Families in villages have recently taken to constructing their own scarecrows, erecting them in front of their house as a means of protection. Scarecrows, which can range from one to two meters high, depending on the amount of straw or hay, are decorated with spare clothing, hats, gloves, even make-up – but most recently, scarecrows have been spotted sporting surgical masks. 

Speaking with ThmeyThmey, some locals in Saang district, Kandal province described their intentions and beliefs regarding this century-old practice. Kak Sony, a local villager, said “I erected this scarecrow in order to protect my house from this emerging virus. Yet, I still have to wash my hands whenever I arrive home from work or before having meals. However, this is a just a traditional practice that people have been doing it for a very long time.”

Nheb Saylak, an elderly local woman, sitting on her swinging wooden chair under the comfort of her house next to the main road, explained the rationale behind the practice.

“When something does not seem so right, we just put them [scarecrows] out there. I don’t really know, but other people just put them along the street. Perhaps, it is something of a dark path – an invisible or mystical path,” she said. 

Another elderly local woman by the name of Ngoeur Kimso shared similar views on the scarecrows, “The disease still continues to spread, but we just do that [put up scarecrows] anyway, if it does not spread then it is a good thing. But if it does, there is nothing that can help besides doctors. We cannot just trust the scarecrows, however, this is a tradition. In the past, when a few people die because of diseases, we put the scarecrows as a means of deterring bad fortune.”

Lastly, Kimso concluded that the only way to be safe is to stay hygienic and that scarecrows are not the only solution to this pandemic. 


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