Poorest hit hard as virus brings society to its knees
After a long wait, the government has finally come up with relief packages to ease the plight of business operators and those losing their jobs due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
The government, which has also declared a state of emergency in the hope that it can streamline and improve its performance in the fight against the virus, has been slammed for its sluggishness in handling the crisis since the first case was detected in mid-January. The number of infections soared to more than 1,000 as of yesterday.
The government is planning to provide 5,000-baht cash giveaways to temporary employees, contract staff and self-employed individuals in the so-called informal sector, which comprises at least 3 million people. Registration of eligible recipients is set to begin tomorrow.
The government has said it will earmark 50 billion baht from the central budget to fund this cash handout, which will last for three months. State-owned banks have also been instructed to provide soft loans to business operators who have encountered an economic crunch during this difficult time.
The government was compelled to issue the packages after the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) declared the shutdown of shopping malls and markets, entertainment places, and services like massage shops, hair salons, for three weeks in a move to combat the contagion. All restaurants and eateries have been ordered to close down seating areas and only provide takeaways.
Such swift measures has seen several businesses downsize or even collapse, with a large number of workers losing their jobs, while the self-employed faced abrupt cash shortages.
Needless to say, these measures are making things difficult for those who have no economic cushion compared to those in the formal sector, such as salaried people, who are covered by some kind of social security and can wait until the economy picks up.
No doubt, the shutdown has prompted an exodus, as these people have gone back to their hometown where they can find family support. But there's a backlash, as virus hotspots have expanded.
Nutchanart Taentong, chair of the Four Regions Slum Network, said most members of the network in 58 slums in Greater Bangkok earn daily wages, working as cleaners, waiting staff in restaurants and parking attendants in entertainment venues.
Shutting down these places automatically strips many of their jobs as employers cannot afford to pay them during the three-week break. Prospects are also dim because it is not clear how long this virus will haunt us and, even if scientists do find a vaccine, it will still take some time before the bruised economy can make a turnaround.
Salaried people have money to buy and stock food during shutdown, though most people are struggling to make ends meet. Life is already tough for those living on daily wages, not to mention the exorbitant interest rates they have to pay to loan sharks. These people have no way of benefiting from the so-called soft loans or the debt moratorium promised by the government, Ms Nutchanart said.
"Very few slum members have bank accounts. Some may be part of a housing programme with the Community Development Organisation Institute and we will have to ask the agency to delay the payment of instalments," she said.
The activist added that it would be helpful if the authorities intervened and stopped the hoarding of food and necessities.
"We need also need help with utility bills, which are a big burden. As is widely known, we in slum communities pay higher rates than city residents."
Slum dwellers also have to sew their own masks as it is either rare to find one in the market or they are not affordable, she said, adding "we will die, not from the virus, but from economic hardship".
Ms Nutchanart also pointed out that homeless people are the most vulnerable group during this crisis. Before this, homeless people would gather in specific places like Hua Lamphong train station for free food. However, since the outbreak, the food being handed out has fallen substantially, as giveaways from Chinese shrines have become zero.
Kannikar Pujani, coordinator for a homeless people's network, said those living on the street are the hardest hit because they face the greatest risk of infection.
"At night, they have to stick together, because it's not safe for them to be on their own," she said.
They expect little from the government because they know they always slip through the cracks of society, she said. The authorities tend to put them in welfare homes and they don't want that. They prefer to be part of a project run by activists in Bangkok Noi, but the site is already full. They hope this project can be expanded, Ms Kannikar said.
The outbreak has also badly hit the informal group, such as taxi drivers and subcontractors in the garment industry, said Sujin Rungsawang, a coordinator for a network of informal workers.
Workers in the entertainment sector, in particular, have been devastated by the shutting down of pubs and bars. However, Ms Sujin said she hopes that once the pandemic is over, the government will create new jobs for them, like getting garment subcontractors to make school uniforms instead of importing cheap clothing from China.
However, the one group that will be left out in the cold are sex workers. How can they gain access to state assistance?
Chantawipa Apisuk of Empower Group said this group lost their jobs as soon as the government shut down pubs and bars. Normally they get no help from the state, and they don't dare hope the state will reach out to them.
These people have played a big part in making Thailand's tourism industry a big success, yet nobody will help them during this difficult time, the activist said, adding that sex workers are different from farmers or factory workers who are typically covered by state assistance schemes.
This vulnerable group is large, yet their voices remain unheard.
We can only wait and see if the government keeps its promise of providing financial packages to as many people as possible.
Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of www.transbordernews.in.th.
Founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th
Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of www.transbordernews.in.th