Pandemic exposes inequalities for marginalised
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Pandemic exposes inequalities for marginalised

The precarious situation of marginalised communities has increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has brought home the need for access to government assistance, which is often not forthcoming and leads to dramatic consequences including increased suicide rates.

The dire consequences of such precarities is dramatised by Thailand having the highest suicide rate, despite being the second largest economy in Southeast Asia. The poverty rate has increased dramatically in the country and debt-poverty has pushed many to suicide. The need for public assistance is evident in addressing the amplification during the pandemic of distresses caused by inequality and poverty. However, the government's inability to provide help has also been called into question. A case in point is the difficulties Thailand faced in providing financial assistance to the poorest in society. The government even appealed to the richest businessmen to assist!

The struggle to survive amid the pandemic was highlighted by journalists working on inequality, injustice and poverty whose stories featured in the "Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award" organised last week by Asia Centre and Oxfam in Asia in Bangkok, Thailand. The journalists exposed existing inequalities within and between societies. They showed that the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically exacerbated the precariousness and vulnerability of many groups: children, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees and women.

Employing "old-school" journalism -- listening and interacting with the victims themselves -- they diligently documented the bravery of these groups who faced harsh and unfair conditions and practices as they sought to squeeze out a living in various sectors and locations: women in home-based work, the transport sector, women providing healthcare in remote areas, home-based women workers, women and children in conflict areas, rural agricultural farmers from minority communities, stateless climate refugees and transgender communities deprived of their sparse sources of livelihood.

The journalists have documented harrowing stories. Inequality and injustice affecting poor women in particular have featured across the stories. Women in remote, mountainous areas of Pakistan who are providing healthcare relief face prejudices in a male-dominated society, receive no or inadequate compensation and suffer the brunt of misinformation and conspiracies regarding treatment for Covis-19. Earlier conspiracies have led to them being labelled the "polio-women".

Trans women in Singapore have been severely affected as lockdowns have deprived them of the venues where they can employ the only commodity society expects from them -- their beauty. Indeed, bars and pubs have been shut for long periods. Their inability to access other sectors of the economy place them in a situation of extreme vulnerability.

Women and children in conflict zones in the Philippines, do not have access to basic pre- and post-natal care. They are extremely vulnerable to all forms of violence, both physical and structural. The home-based worker sector in Pakistan, 80% of whom are women, lack basic benefits and social security. They have courageously pushed for recognition as 'workers' and draft legislation has been proposed. Job-losses and labour malpractices take place in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam where salaries, overtime bonuses and healthcare insurance have been cut. In addition, their vulnerability has made them susceptible to gangs that seize their money through fake recruitment websites.

The transport sector in the Philippines was affected by Covid-19, as jeepney workers suddenly could not operate under lockdown. Already poor, their desperation is compounded by the Government's existing plans to overhaul the transport sector and to move towards a more green and sustainable transport sector. This means replacing current jeepneys with more modern, less polluting models. The cost of this transformation is being placed on the jeepney drivers, with little or no government assistance. Migrant workers employed in freelance, invisible labour across Asia do not have access to basic guarantees, benefits and social services.

The stories of the journalists bring to the fore the duty of governments to respect fundamental labour rights and standards under international labour and human rights law: freedom of association and the right to organise, the right to organise and bargain collectively, the prohibition on forced labour of any kind, the prohibition on child labour, the right to equal remuneration, the prohibition on discrimination in employment and the right to an adequate standard of living.

These stories manifest high levels of economic inequalities in Asian countries which are further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The strong evidence produced by journalists across Asia suggest that governments must prioritise addressing inequality and avoid reverting to the flawed economic model that benefits only the wealthy few at the cost of the poor, women, and marginalised communities; a model that has brought us to this brink and is no longer sustainable. It is critical to seize the opportunity to build pathways for an inclusive, people and environmental centred economic recovery. The duty of journalists is to continue to expose inequalities and injustice in society and to keep governments accountable. This is especially critical and increasingly difficult in an era when mainstream media is mistrusted. Therein lies the value of the Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award -- to encourage and reward strong fact-based journalism. Nominations for the 2021-2022 cycle will open later this year.

James Gomez, PhD, is Regional Director, Asia Centre and Mustafa Talpur is Regional Advocacy and Campaigns Manager-Asia for Oxfam International. Asia Centre and Oxfam in Asia are co-conveners of Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award.

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