Visually Impaired People Struggle to Live during the Community Outbreak

Combo picture shows Yang Saroun (R) and Lon Maihaing.
  • Po Sakun and Teng Yalirozy
  • April 19, 2021 3:34 AM

Both the lack of opportunities to work and the isolation are affecting them, they say, as they learn to cut on food

PHNOM PENH--A number of visually-impaired Cambodians who are Khmer traditional musicians have been struggling to survive since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago. But with the recent Feb. 20 community outbreak, their situation has turned even more critical as their opportunities to perform have evaporated, bringing their income down to zero.  

Due to this community outbreak, large gatherings, weddings, religious and traditional ceremonies as well as art performances have been cancelled in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The impacts of the pandemic have been felt painfully by many Cambodians. While the restrictions have played an important role to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it also has especially affected the most vulnerable groups in the country including physically-impaired people. And for many with visual disabilities whose trade is playing Khmer classical music, the situation has gone from bad to desperate during this latest community outbreak as they cannot earn any money to support themselves.

While some of them have small savings they can use, others have been compelled to borrow money from friends—who also have little money left—to solve the day-to-day needs for a short while.

If the community transmission situation lasts any longer, they said, they don’t know how they will survive.

One of them is Noun Sok, who can play 20 or so Khmer traditional instruments. This latest Feb. 20 community outbreak has been the worst for him and others in the same situation, he said.

“During the first outbreak [in early November 2020], I did not face much difficulty,” he said. “I had some money saved…However, I had to spend that money because of the pandemic. The second outbreak [in late November 2020] was fine; I was still able to play…because the closure was not long.

“But this third outbreak is the worse because I have no more money saved,” Sok said.

Noun Sok can play up to 20 Khmer traditional instruments. Photo supplied. 

 During the Feb. 20 community outbreak, Sok who has been blind since birth said he was able to give some performances in February and early March 2021. But this stopped in mid-March and no event enabling him to earn something has been held since. 

The 38-year-old musician has no other way of making ends meet besides his music skills and, since his family also lives in poverty, he cannot rely on any of his relatives to help support him, he said.

Sok ended up asking one of his students for a loan. “If I cannot play instruments, I can do nothing,” he said. “I have two or three students in Kampong Cham Province, who are in the same situation as I am. So far, I have borrowed 100,000 riels [around $25] from my students,” he said, adding that he will be in deep trouble if the situation does not soon get better.

Another Cambodian traditional musician from Kampong Cham Province, Lon Maihaing, has also been struggling during this latest community cluster.

Visually impaired and in his 30s, Maihaing previously had a part-time massage job but he now is jobless due to COVID-19. He has received some government subsidies, he said, which has helped ease the burden during these difficult times.

“I live in a rented house,” he said. “I depend upon the government subsidy because I am among the Level 2 Poor households. Now, there are no chances for me to perform,” Maihaing said. “But I have a friend who invited me to stay at his house. I teach him music and he pays me as much as he can.”

The financial assistance he receives from the government through the IDPoor program barely covers his rent and the money he has earned from teaching over two months can only cover short-term expenses, he said.

“The 112,000 riels [$28] provided by the government is not sufficient to pay rent, honestly speaking, because my monthly rental fee is $35,” Maihaing said. “So, I have to earn extra money to meet the expense. Moreover, teaching traditional music is not permanent [work]. I only taught for two months and received $120 per month.”

Yang Saroun, a Khmer traditional musician who, in 2019, married a woman who is visually impaired as he is, says he has no income at all at the present time.

The 27-year-old musician has had to spend the small amount of savings he had set aside for future medical expenses on necessary supplies. “My main job is playing traditional Pin Peat music,” he said. “Now, I do not generate any income as there are no ceremonies or festivals. For day-to-day expenses, I use the money left over from previous performances and saved for unexpected illness. That is not much money, only a little. I have had problems since the beginning of March.”

Fortunately, he has received government subsidies, which has enabled him to pay the rent, Saroun said.

“My wife and I receive only 176,000 riels [$44],” he said. “All the money is spent on rent, water, and electricity. My wife works as a volunteer at one place to get around 200,000 riels [$50], which is spent on moto [taxi] and other payments.”

Rising anxiety driven by financial scarcity

The uncertainty created by the Feb. 20 community transmission that, at the present time, still remains to be brought under control, has caused physical and mental distress for every individual and especially for those in poor communities. 

Noun Sok has developed anxiety and frustration prompted by the lack of resources while living with his mother and siblings who also are destitute.

“I have [developed] a mental problem living with my family,” he said. “When I was able to give music performances, I felt at ease, listening to it. I was happy because I could earn money while playing music to entertain others as well as myself.

“Now, I cannot go anywhere,” Sok said. “It is stressful, and I get angry easily. I want to take a crutch and leave [to go to a] fellow musician’s house, but I cannot.”

Maihaing is no different. Even though he can speak on mobile phone with friends with similar physical impairment, he feels lonely and isolated because there is not the intimacy of speaking to someone in person, he said.

And there are feelings that can only be shared by other people with physical disabilities, Maihaing explained. “[N]ormally, people with disabilities befriend people with disabilities because they can truly understand each other,” he said. “When I was miserable, those friends came to comfort me. However, I can phone them and watch the news to kill boredom.”

Maihaing, who used to earn 10,000 riels ($2.50) per hour giving massages, said his savings can only sustain him for a few more months. And if the situation with the pandemic does not improve, it will be difficult for him to survive, he said.

Sok, who is in a similar situation, has had to cut on food. “I used to have fish porridge for breakfast,” he said. But the money he had earned having run out, and having already borrowed from friends, he said, “I had to reduce my meals. I mostly skip breakfast, and I only have lunch and dinner because, if I don’t eat dinner, my stomach will get upset.” 

For Saroun who was born into a poor family with little to live on, this is all familiar: He and his family are managing, helping and supporting each other during this difficult time, he said.

“My wife and I have learned to be hungry,” Saroun said. “Some days, we run out of money, we eat duck eggs. Moreover, we never have any quarrel over money issue.”

Since there is no mototaxi to take Saroun’s wife to work due to COVID-19, his father-in-law has been taking his wife to work every day. “If he is in his hometown, he can cut firewood for little money,” Saroun said. “But when he is with me, he has nothing to do.

Saroun’s father also has tried to help, he said. “My father is also a farmer, and he always [sends me] a few dozen kilos of rice.”

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