Thailand’s poverty trap grows amid deadly pandemic

This past Sunday, the world marked the annual International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It is an ongoing struggle for many of the world’s emerging and developing countries as rapid economic development must be balanced with programs that ensure no one gets left behind.

It has been 34 years since the first time the world came together to work towards poverty elimination, with the first event marked on October 17, 1987. That day, over a hundred thousand people gathered at the Human Rights and Liberties Plaza in Paris, to honor the victims of poverty, violence, hunger, and fear.

One could argue that this commemoration is especially important in 2021 because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In Thailand alone, the pandemic has pushed more people underneath the poverty line than any economic crisis. The effects of lockdown and the restriction of international travel has seen a spike in unemployment, defaults, and even economic-related suicides. Thailand is also not isolated in experiencing these hardships, the same is true across much of the developing world.

Cycle of Poverty in Thailand

“Poverty brings about inequality and caste discrimination,” said Siri Ninlapruke, a volunteer for the Issarachon Foundation, which has been helping the homeless to return to society over the past ten years.

Siri said that many of the services provided the government that people take for granted are not accessible to those in need.

“I have come across many cases intensified by poverty. At some point the homeless need to obtain health care services, but they can’t,” Siri told Thai Enquirer.

According to Siri, poverty also transcends borders and affects all people – something that must be addressed when tackling the problem.

“Homeless undocumented immigrants [have it just as bad]. Without an ID card, they cannot access the facilities provided by the government,” Siri said.

Siri told us that since the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic has occurred, aid distribution has been sporadic and has failed to reach the most needy.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the foundation distributed 150 free food packages to the homeless every Tuesday,” Siri said.

But the pandemic has increased the number of the poor and now the foundation struggles to keep up supply, distributing some 600 packages to those in need.

Siri said they do not expect the government’s help in their everyday task but that in order to fix the structural problems that cause poverty, better government policy is needed to lift people out of poverty and to create equal opportunities.

World Bank data shows that Thailand’s poverty rate has risen from 6.2% to 8.8% of the population due to the effects of the pandemic.

This number is also reflected in data from the Thailand National Statistics Office (NSO) which shows the unemployment rate rising 2 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

The tourism industry, one of Thailand’s key employers, has also suffered greatly at the hands of the pandemic with billions of baht worth of losses and thousands of jobs gone.

For those who lose their jobs, the experience could not only be jarring but the lack of state instruction and support means that many are left struggling financially and unable to cover usual household expenses such as food, school costs, or health conditions.

Business owners face dilemma

Phuwarach Uadkla, a restaurant owner affected by the crisis, told Thai Enquirer that he has tried his best to help his workers but it has not been easy.

“I earned a million baht of revenue per month before Covid hit. There were seven investing partners and nearly ten workers,” he said. “The revenue has dropped to thousands of baht a month and there are only 3 workers in the restaurant since the measures forced us to adapt. The tables are now empty. My business partners went their own ways due to the loss of profits. I’m not certain how long I can cope with such a situation.”

Many like Phuwarach have tried their best to keep their workers employed but it isn’t always possible with the lockdown extended and the borders closed.

Understanding the struggle

Baramee Chaiyarat, General Secretary for the Assembly of the Poor, told Thai Enquirer that those living under the poverty line do not do it by choice. While the problem is especially acute and highlighted during the pandemic, the structural issues that causes poverty in Thailand have been there for decades.

According to Baramee, one of the biggest contributors to ending poverty is ensuring children have an education.

“A mother of one family kept her children out of school as the only accessible road to school is rocky and unsafe. The situation forced them to leave their future behind and work at a young age. Some teenagers packed up and moved to the city to work with few possible opportunities. Some gave up their dream to become a nurse and instead became a sex worker as they had no other choices.” he said. 

Baramee said these realities can be addressed by better government policies that gave equal opportunities to all and allowed children of lower income families access to education. Better financial aid for low income families looking to access higher education could also be an easy policy that allows families to escape the poverty trap.

“We aim for state structural reforms. Things won’t change unless we are committed to equality,” he said.

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