Special Report: Vulnerable communities hardest hit with second Covid wave

Barely back on their feet after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand’s less well-off communities have been sucker-punched by the second wave that started in December. And this time around, while the impact on small and micro-businesses is much the same, the government’s refusal to call a formal lockdown means support is harder to come by.

Chalida Sisawang lost her library job at a primary school during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic back in April. Over the following months, she was just getting by doing odd jobs and selling off her jewelry. But when Thailand was hit with a new wave of infections in December, her family’s income options faced further restrictions and she had run out of things to sell.

The 54-year-old’s three children used to work part-time at a Japanese restaurant in a mall to help pay for their school tuitions. But the restaurant closed its doors for good when the pandemic returned. With only her husband working as a driver for hire, her household income has been cut by more than half.

“During the first wave, I had to use my savings and sell my valuables to make ends meet,” said the resident of the Choomchon Pattana Cheupleung 2 community in Bangkok’s Yannawa district.

“This time around, I don’t have anything left to sell,” she said, explaining that her family had resorted to loans just to get by.

Many low-income families like Chalida’s were forced to use up their savings, downsize and take on debts to deal with the first wave. Not expecting the swift return of the virus, many are now unable to tighten their belts any further.

Buddhist monks from Wat Pho Nimit Sathit Mahasimaram temple distribute free meals to people in their community, amid restrictions on daily life in the effort to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Bangkok on April 8, 2020. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

After first successfully containing the Covid-19 pandemic, with the daily number of new cases holding steady in single digits for several months, Thailand suddenly saw a spike in December as the figure surpassed 500. Amid mass testing in the last week of January, the kingdom has recorded over 10,000 cases since mid-December.

Most of the cases back in 2020 were imported and in quarantine, but the resurgence of the virus this year has been mostly locally transmitted, increasing the fear of an uncontrolled nationwide outbreak.

“We were just starting to recover from the first wave, so when the new wave came, everything was disrupted again,” Chalida told Thai Enquirer.

All socio-economic groups were affected by the economic downturn due to the pandemic, but low-income earners have been hit the hardest.

“When Covid-19 hit our communities, we found that [those groups] were the first to be let go [from their jobs],” said Sasie Smittipatana, the co-founder of COVID Thailand Aid, a grassroots initiative helping vulnerable communities across the kingdom.

“They don’t have many opportunities to start with, because there are so many limitations on the things they can do,” she added. “Now they are in a situation where they cannot earn enough to live without taking on loans on a monthly basis.”

No “lockdown”

Unlike during the first wave of the pandemic, the government has chosen not to declare a formal lockdown – in part, to help businesses survive and stay open. But the reality on the ground is that people have moved around less and travelled less, partly because of government-mandated restrictions but also voluntary changes in behaviour.

The official explanation for not imposing an actual lockdown is to avoid a repeat of the economic hardship incurred by last year’s, according to Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, spokesperson for the government’s Center for the COVID-19 Situation Administration.

“In this new war, our strategy is to apply the strongest medicine only where the problem is at its worst,” rather than applying strong restrictions throughout the entire country, he told a press briefing on January 2.

Instead, the government has created a system with tiered levels of restrictions based on the number of infections recorded in each province. The strictest restrictions, in zones such as Samut Sakhon province, the epicenter of the second outbreak, constitute a lockdown in all but name.

However, Taweesin apparently also let slip that the government was reluctant to declare a lockdown because it would then have to pay compensation to citizens and businesses. The comment has provoked something of a public backlash.

Many say the economic consequences under the new restrictions are just as severe as the first, if not more so. While daily labourers like street vendors are still allowed to work, their customers are often reluctant to move as freely as before and spend money on their wares.

“Traders like me are greatly affected, more so than the first time,” said 48-year-old Nid Sisupan, who sells coffee and other drinks from his cart on the streets of Khlong Toei.

“People have run out of money since the first wave.”

A woman helps her daughters to put on face shields, which were handed out together with food donations at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Bangkok on May 12, 2020. (Photo by Romeo GACAD / AFP)

“They can sell stuff on the street but there’s no customer anyway,” said Ada Chirapaisarnkul, the founder of Tae Jai, a social-impact platform that coordinates and aggregates fundraising campaigns from a variety of NGOs.

“In terms of actual income, the sentiment and how they feel is exactly as bad as the first lockdown.”

Opposition leader Pita Limjaroenrat said he understood the government’s reluctance to call an all-out lockdown, but also stressed the need to support the country’s less prosperous, hard-working citizens.

“Lockdown should be a last resort,” the leader of the Move Forward Party told Thai Enquirer. “It should be done with a lot of empathy for the people who live hand-to-mouth.”

But given the circumstances, he expressed his concern about whether or not the government would provide sufficient economic assistance.

“The first Covid-19 wave was devastating. Its impact is still long-lasting, and even before our economy could recover to our previous level, the second wave hit,” he said. “It will be more challenging this time to implement health measures without universal, progressive and aggressive economic relief measures in place.”

A man places boxes of wafers in a “Pantry of Sharing”, a community pantry stocked with food items as part of a sharing scheme to help those impacted negatively by the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province on May 13, 2020. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)

NGO response

Prior to the second wave, while Thailand was gradually opening up again, one of COVID Thailand Aid’s long-term goals was to help communities upskill themselves to reach more stable and higher-paying jobs. Technology literacy was a focus, as many low-income families were unable to access government support without the know-how or access to technology.

However, with the return of the second wave, the group have had to turn their attention to immediate relief like providing supplies and food to affected families.

Meanwhile, Tae Jai has pivoted to work on the long-term effects expected to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. “Last year, there was a lot of donation and support that went into Covid issues, and some other issues were put on hold,” Ada observed.

“This year, I feel like people realize that there are a lot of consequences beyond the actual disease, like mental-health problems.”

Taejai is now working to raise money for Ooca, a platform that helps access to professional psychologists and psychiatrists for young people.

Ada acknowledged that NGO and donor behaviour has changed a lot between the first and second waves, in part due to changing expectations of the government’s response.

“In the first wave, we thought of it as an emergency issue and thought if we could tackle it immediately and get it in control, everything would go back to normal,” she said.

Last year, Taejai coordinated 40 Covid-related projects, funneling millions of baht to NGOs. For example, one Covid-19 fund to raise money for the purchase of protective equipment for medical personnel raised 5 million baht in less than two months.

“But I feel a very different sentiment now,” Ada remarks, with donors less willing to support issues that are becoming seen as longer-lasting, more structural in nature, and therefore more the responsibility of government.

The pandemic has played out for months in other countries, with a variety of responses worldwide showing what works and what doesn’t. There has been more than enough time to prepare for another wave, she feels.

“People are asking for more government accountability on certain issues,” she said. “So people will ask more, and be more critical of how they donate, but also play the role of active citizens, asking more from their government.”

The pandemic has played out for months in other countries, with a variety of responses worldwide showing what works and what doesn’t. There has been more than enough time to prepare for another wave, she said.

Workers take down a massage salon’s sign following a two weeks closure order by the government on entertainment centres and schools in the capital to contain the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Bangkok on March 22, 2020. – Thailand’s confirmed coronavirus cases rose by a third to nearly 600, the kingdom announced on March 22, as fears of a full-blown crisis take hold in a country largely spared until now. (Photo by Romeo GACAD / AFP)

Government assistance

The administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has not been idle in the face of mounting economic pain. In January, the cabinet approved a number of assistance programs, including reductions in electricity and water bills.

Most importantly, the Ministry of Finance is spearheading a new programme called Rao Chana (We Win), which will distribute 7,000 baht each over the course of two months to approximately 30 million eligible citizens.

In addition, the Ministry of Commerce has implemented further measures to control prices, such as the “Commerce Sales for the People” programme. A New Year Sale organized by the ministry, for example, saw prices for some products reduced by as much as 87 percent.

“These programmes have been helpful in reducing the cost of living for people during this time of hardship,” Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanawisit told Thai Enquirer, pointing to polling that show the popularity of these measures. 

Some of the government’s economic-assistance policies, however, have come under scrutiny.

Firstly, there are questions raised about the accessibility of the Rao Chana programme. Accessing the money requires downloading the application on a smartphone, which many low-income earners do not have. 

Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith has retorted that all low-income holders of the State Welfare card will automatically be able to access money from the Rao Chana programme.

Secondly, critics believe the Rao Chana programme alone may not be enough to effectively alleviate economic pain. Pita says the programme was a “necessity” and likely to be implemented well, but was insufficient.

He said more measures were needed to help small and medium enterprises and workers in the government’s “red zones” that were suffering from the heaviest restrictions.

In particular, eligibility criteria for the sof-loan programme for SMEs should be relaxed. Nationally, more direct cash payments were also needed, to act as a “temporary basic income to ensure the majority of Thais can survive through this second wave.”

“I’m not being a populist here,” Pita said. “It’s the fastest method.”

By Teirra Kamolvattanavith, Jasmine Chia, and Ken Lohatepanont


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