Virus fight sees impoverished go hungry

Virus fight sees impoverished go hungry

A scavenger rides his tricycle in Bangkok. During the Covid-19 outbreak, many poor people have suffered food scarcity due to their inability to access state assistance.  APICHIT JINAKUL
A scavenger rides his tricycle in Bangkok. During the Covid-19 outbreak, many poor people have suffered food scarcity due to their inability to access state assistance.  APICHIT JINAKUL

Already reeling from shutdowns brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, the poor have found themselves facing increasing economic hardship since the government enforced social distancing measures and travel restrictions to flatten the curve of transmission three weeks ago.

There have been numerous media reports depicting the depressing state of Thailand's poor. One such report concerned an electrician from Songkhla who deliberately walked towards police officers in Phuket with a methamphetamine pill in his hand, asking them to charge him and send him to jail for illicit drug possession because he had nothing to eat.

The man said he was laid off but couldn't return to his family because Phuket was locked down not long after he lost his job. He was charged but it has not been reported whether he was jailed as he hoped.

The government's measures to lock down cities, shut down businesses, restrict travel and impose curfews have resulted in the loss of jobs. Without income, food has become scarce among the poor -- many of whom can hardly afford to eat, let alone fill their stomachs.

There have been several reports of theft and burglaries in the past two weeks. The motives of many cases are linked to rising poverty and food shortages.

One such incident was that of a 25-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who was arrested last week for stealing 6,000 baht cash from a grocery store owner in Sathon district. Several reporters visited his home and found out he was the sole breadwinner for a family of six.

His wife told reporters they had run out of rice and had to ask for food from their relatives to get by. Before the outbreak, they depended on daily wages. Without a source of income, they have nothing to buy food with.

Their plight is in stark contrast to how the middle-class, including white-collar workers, have been living during the outbreak. For them, food is not a problem.

They can get food at department stores, supermarkets, grocery shops and convenience stores. They can even have food delivered without having to leave their houses.

But for the poor, these are luxuries they can't afford. They survive off cheap food from street vendors, street stalls at markets or mobile food trucks -- many of which have suspended operations or closed down because of the government's restrictions on activities and movement.

Speaking on ThaiPBS's Public Forum programme last Wednesday, Wirun Limsawart, a doctor with a background in anthropology, described the situation as "medicalisation", as most of the government's policy and public reactions are focused on efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

But other essential issues, such as the availability of food, are not given enough attention.

"Food has become a personal matter that individuals must handle themselves, leading to actions such as food hoarding. We've had no preparation to ensure food security. The [government's] policy does not address this issue at all," said Dr Wirun.

There is another layer of disparity. While small-scale food businesses can hardly get by, big retailers, convenience stores and grocery chains -- such as Tesco Lotus, 7-Eleven, Tops Supermarket -- have emerged as major food providers during the pandemic.

They own storage facilities, have high-capacity transport and are able to obtain good credit from both the government and their middle-class consumer base -- allowing them to shift food and other goods across provincial borders despite the travel restrictions.

However, these retailers don't really offer cheap food which the poor can afford.

Many of you may argue that the poor can use the 5,000-baht monthly cash handout under a government scheme to aid informal workers affected by the outbreak. So why should we talk about food for the poor at this point?

The fact is not every person can access the scheme. Before the pandemic, many of the poor were already unemployed. As such, they are not eligible to receive the subsidy.

Many are unemployed for many reasons, which include disability and having to care for a sick or dependent family member.

These households, just like the motorcycle taxi driver's, depend on their breadwinners to eat. Even if they could get a subsidy, the amount isn't enough to feed a whole family.

Providing food for these households is just as important as relieving their financial burden, as food accounts for about one-third of total household expenses, according to the National Statistics Office.

From Chiang Mai to Phuket, it is now common to see people queuing up in long lines to get free food provided by non-profit organisations, local restaurants or charitable individuals. It is clear that, beyond monetary assistance, there is a dire need for food aid.

In Bangkok, non-profit organisations City Farm Network, Sustainable Agriculture Foundation, and Thai Holistic Health Foundation started "Share Food, Share Life", an initiative to raise funds to buy food from small-scale farmers to be distributed to the urban poor.

The campaign is interesting in the way it wisely matches up two vulnerable groups -- small-scale farmers who want to sell their produce amid shutdowns of businesses, and cash-strapped, poor consumers who need food but can't afford it.

Individuals and non-profit organisations have played a big role in meeting the needs of both groups, which have are both left to fend for themselves by the state. Their plight reflects the inadequacy and flaws in the government's assistance for the poor.

Despite having rolled out several handouts over the course of the outbreak, the government has failed to reach out to those in most need of state assistance. The handouts are blanket measures which failed to adequately take into account the needs, livelihoods and even location of poor individuals. State officials usually sit back and wait for the poor to reach out to them -- an inefficient approach as most people living in poverty don't have the means to get their voices heard by the government.

In responding to a crisis like the current pandemic, the government must ensure there are assistance measures which meet the need of all poor people -- including a systematic food distribution scheme.

Recent news stories have proved that leaving the poor to deal with food scarcity by themselves can lead to social problems, such as increased crime, poverty and inequality. Without state aid, ultimately it won't just be their problem.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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