Cambodia forces people into bleak quarantine camps as an outbreak rages.

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The patients sit in packed ambulances before passing through metal gates. Once inside, they get a number, a thin blanket and a bedsheet to use as a mosquito net. Lights shine at all hours for surveillance. Each person is given four bottles of water a day and three small meals.

The Cambodian government, racing to contain a raging coronavirus outbreak, has set up a system of forced quarantine centers that patients say are run more like makeshift prisons than hospitals. No one is allowed to leave until they test negative — and most people are stuck for at least 10 days.

The sprawling quarantine centers are the product of an overwhelmed and underfunded health care system, a jolt of recent Covid deaths and an authoritarian streak that often turns to a robust security apparatus in times of trouble. The Cambodian government has gone from nonchalance to closures to crackdowns, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has thundered against anyone who escaped government treatment, eluded quarantine or violated home isolation.

Phnom Penh health officials confirmed this month that 21 Covid “care centers” had been set up across the capital. Or Vandine, secretary of state at the Ministry of Health, said that she did not know how many patients were in the state-run quarantine camps, but that officials were doing all they could to “make conditions in the camps livable.”

Officials rarely talk about the quarantine centers, but they are impossible to hide.

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