Govt failing to channel help to the most needy

Govt failing to channel help to the most needy

Amid a shortage of medical supplies, many, including celebrities, have either launched or joined fundraising campaigns to help provide medical professionals with equipment needed to battle the Covid-19 pandemic in a show of solidarity and empathy in this time of crisis.

Even though millions of baht has been donated into these campaigns, those who need help the most have yet to receive a piece of the pie. Small hospitals in many provinces are still suffering from a shortage of respirators and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as goggles, face masks and hazmat suits.

The same goes for the government's relief packages for those affected by the outbreak. Low-income workers living in Bangkok's slums and other major cities have not found any helping hands.

A slum dweller in Bangkok told me that members of her community had not received any government assistance until recently. They lost most of their income after the government ordered a shutdown of department stores, entertainment venues and other places to contain the spread of the virus.

These stark realities on the ground contrast sharply with a number of picture-perfect social media campaigns that I have noticed recently. These campaigns raise money from white-collar workers to buy lunch boxes for some major hospitals where, ironically, free meals are already provided for medical staff.

The handling of these campaigns and government aid reminds me of market failure, the economic situation in which resources are misallocated because of unavailable information, or asymmetric information in economic terms.

Donors, who are unaware of who, where and which places need resources the most, end up giving money to well-known and well-funded organisations. Rich donors, in return, can use donation receipts issued by big charitable organisations to claim income tax deductions -- a benefit they won't get from directing handouts to the poor or donating to resource-constrained small hospitals in rural areas which have not established such a system.

Therefore, donations are often concentrated on big, urban hospitals.

Recently, a campaign "to fight Covid-19" run by celebrities showed a list of recipients comprising mainly Bangkok's major hospitals. (This is similar to the second charity run initiated by a Thai singer that resulted in millions of baht being donated to well-known hospitals, rather than the small ones facing the most severe medical supply shortages.)

Starved of aid from both state and through private donations, these small, rural hospitals do not have sufficient PPE, and their medical professionals are risking contracting the virus at work. The Public Health Ministry has reported the majority of medical professionals recently infected with the coronavirus work in public hospitals in less developed provinces such as Buri Ram, Mukdahan, Trang and Yala.

A doctor from a rural hospital told me he had to suspend many staff members from work and ask them to self-quarantine because they had not worn PPE to treat suspected Covid-19 cases. Their plight is a result of the government's delayed response to this pandemic. As the voices of medical professionals in provincial hospitals calling for PPE donations has grown louder, so too have call from the phu yai, or senior members of the government, asking them to stop. Why? Because it would make the government look bad given its inability to manage the pandemic and guarantee the safety of medical staff. The government's fear of losing face has suppressed the voices of medical staff and barred them from accessing aid.

Of course, donations are not the only solution, but they can provide partial relief for those who really need help. As long as public resources and private donations remain misallocated, small hospitals and the poor will continue to suffer.

Fundraising is only worthwhile if it is done effectively and ensures the money raised goes to those who need it the most. That is to say, those who want to do good should rather pay heed to direct calls for donations from small hospitals and affected people who desperately need help.

Most importantly, donors should pressure the government to come up with long-term solutions to this iniquity. How have we ended up with a chronic shortage of medical supplies despite the availability of government revenue? Why are our taxes not being used to help the poorest and most vulnerable in this time of crisis?

If we don't ask these questions, fundraising will become little more than a mechanism to cover systematic state failure and the government's mismanagement of the pandemic. Unless we act to change this, whenever the next crisis emerges, the same unfortunate victims will bear the brunt once more.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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