New deal gets thumbs down

New deal gets thumbs down

Weary of meagre handouts, locals urge mass vaccination solution

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: Vendors put up sheets around their products for cleanliness as they hawk items in pushcarts in the Pratunam area.
PLASTIC FANTASTIC: Vendors put up sheets around their products for cleanliness as they hawk items in pushcarts in the Pratunam area.

The government has launched its third economic relief package since Covid-19 broke out, drawing flak from critics who find the assistance too little to ease the pain and damage.

It introduced the package in parallel with the 14-day partial lockdown in the 10 most seriously hit provinces, including Bangkok. Since the third wave broke in early April, the daily caseload has gradually increased, exceeding 10,000 yesterday with an unprecedented death toll of more than 140.

Few people seem to think the measures will work, according to a roving poll by the Bangkok Post. We surveyed a wide range of residents, in Bangkok and Nonthaburi, from motorcycle taxi drivers to restaurateurs.

Nine groups in the business sector are beneficiaries of the 42-billion-baht assistance programme, including those in construction, hotels, food services, art, entertainment and recreation.

Workers registered under Section 33 of the Social Security Act, for instance, will receive at most 10,000 per person for one month, while their employers will get at most 3,000 baht under a compensation rate of 200 baht per employee.

Other types of workers registered under Sections 39 and 40 of the law will receive a cash handout of 5,000 baht for one month. This is in addition to reduced utility bills.

EMPTY STALLS: Stalls selling clothes are quiet at the Bo Bae market in Pomprap Sattruphai district.

Mass testing a saviour

Sophon Maleehuan, 43, a motorcycle taxi driver in the Ram Intra area, said the lockdown is not tackling the problem at its roots. It restricts the movements of people who find they are no longer able to get as much work.

He normally makes 600-700 baht a day. Now, he is lucky to get 200 baht while his daily expenses such as a 50 baht daily fee to the motorcycle queue operator and food remain the same.

"The relief isn't that helpful. Don't give me money. Instead, spend it on good quality vaccines and buy it fast so everyone can be immunised, and life can get back to normalcy," Mr Sophon said.

The government has failed to look at the big picture and is fumbling to solve problems as they arise, he added.

If the government is not up to the task of getting the country back on track, it should step aside and let someone else do the job, Mr Sophon said.

Another motorcycle taxi driver, Niyom Thuekthong, 59, said widespread infections have rendered relief almost unworkable.

The lockdown should have been imposed during the Songkran festival in the middle of April when people travelled home and transmitted the infection. He barely makes 200 baht a day of income, down three-fold from when before the pandemic struck.

When people stop going out, motorcycle taxi drivers immediately feel the brunt.

"There was something for me in the previous round of the Rao Chana (We Win) financial aid scheme.

"I didn't subscribe to the Khon La Krueng (Half and Half) co-payment subsidy because it isn't flexible and we can't draw cash out of it," he said.

"Also, I can't use it to pay water and electricity bills," he added.

Mr Niyom said he had to twice refinance a loan on his motorcycle for which he pays a 1,200 baht monthly instalment. He is pondering whether he should go for a third refinance.

The only solution he could see was a rollout of effective vaccines along with mass testing that reaches every community. This should single out the sick and keep transmission at bay.

People should avoid cramming into mass testing sites because those with the virus can pass it on. "Everything just seems to be moving at a glacial pace," Mr Niyom said.

Lockdown won't hit the curve

A 38-year-old coffee and tea vendor in Prawet district said she believes that Covid-19 cases will rise further despite the lockdown.

"I still see many people living their lives as normal. They still go out to work while the state encourages people to work at home. Some walk around with their face masks under their chin," she said.

She was unsure if she was entitled to the 5,000-baht-a-month relief extended to freelancers and vendors.

Normally, she earns 5,000–6,000 baht a day, but after Covid–19 struck, her income has fallen to 1,000–1,500 baht a day or even less.

She pays 9,000 baht a month in kiosk rental and sends some money to her parents in Prachin Buri.

The vendor says she is the breadwinner of the family. The stress has weakened her immunity and she developed herpes rashes on her neck.

"The government always sees its own pain and care only about those around them," she said.

A fruit street vendor, 42, also in Prawet district, said she has lost around 99% of her customers, who are mainly department store employees. They are without work after the government ordered the stores closed.

"Before the pandemic, I earned around 5,000–7,000 baht a day, but now I earn just 600–1,000 baht a day," she said.

She thought she might have to switch from selling at a fixed stall to a pushcart to avoid paying rent.

Due to the 9pm-4am curfew, the number of customers has fallen and she goes home with a lot of leftover fruit.

The former nurse said the process of getting the government's financial support is complicated.

She also has a son in Pathom 2 (Grade 2) to care for. His tuition fees alone cost 20,000 baht per term.

Timely vaccination a cure

Nong (surname not given), 51, owner of a traditional massage shop in a department store in the Rattanathibet area of Nonthaburi, said she tried to hang on to her 18-strong staff during lockdown, even though her shop's income fell to a trickle.

Before the pandemic, her business made more than 100,000 baht a month. Now, the department store, and her shop along with it, is a ghost town.

With liquidity drying up, she had to sell her condo which she rented out to tenants and which provided another revenue stream.

She also decided to draw on her retirement savings policy prematurely for which she was charged a steep penalty fee. "But I had no choice. I need cash for my family, for our survival," Ms Nong said.

However, she still hopes for better days ahead and has put aside some money to rebuild her business when the pandemic blows over.

"In the past year of pandemic, I've sold most of my assets and am still three million baht in debt. But it happens to everyone. We just have to keep fighting," she said.

She has joined every state-sponsored relief programme as well as debt restructuring schemes. "At least we can breathe a little easier," she said.

Some of her staff subscribe to the Social Security Fund and are eligible for the 5,000 baht a month of aid. Others are not members of the fund and have quit their jobs and returned home in the provinces.

"The government must give people effective vaccines and do it fast. That way people will have the confidence to go about their daily lives and spend money," Ms Nong said.

Debt moratorium

Poonsap Suanmuang Tulaphan, director of Homenet Thailand, a foundation for development of labour, said the government should launch more procurement projects to spur the economy.

Non-formal workers, including those hired to do handicraft work at home, have received no orders in months. Taxi and motorcycle taxi drivers earn a fraction of what they used to earn.

Non-formal workers who subscribe to the Social Security Fund can get by with 5,000-baht-a-month of aid money. The problem is tough eligibility screening which can cause many to miss out.

Debt suspension would be helpful. Many drivers went into debt to buy motorcycles which they use as taxis, the tools of their trade.

Ms Poonsap said a debt suspension lasting just a few months won't do the job. It should be extended to 5-6 months. Many non-formal workers are at risk because they engage in trade which requires them to meet many customers. "They can't work from home like everyone else," she said.

Selective closures needed

Taniwan Koonmongkon, president of the Thai Restaurant Association, said restaurants in the 10 worst-hit provinces are struggling to pay rent and wages to their workers.

"There's no telling when the crisis will bottom out," she said.

Dine-in services have resumed and been banned again several times since the pandemic started. At the moment, restaurants are permitted to sell take-out meals or do deliveries.

When dine-in services were allowed on May 1, many restaurants re-employed workers who had quit or were told to take leave.

But on May 28, they had to turn around and close again.

She said the government should close dine-in service only in restaurants in areas with high Covid-19 transmission rates.

The latest relief measures mark the first time the government has offered assistance to employers.

The measures come after the association's meeting with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and the Finance Ministry.

Ms Taniwan said large businesses which own rental spaces should lower the rent for tenants such as restaurants, while the association is in talks with National Health Security Office and City Hall to pay restaurants to deliver food to people in at-risk groups and those in home isolation.

"This should help some restaurant businesses survive the crunch," she said.

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