Voluntary groups are playing a vital role complementing a government scheme to deliver food to grassroots citizens suffering from a slump in earnings due to COVID-19
By EAINT THET SU | FRONTIER
OVER THE past week, state newspapers and social media pages have been filled with images of government officials distributing basic supplies to needy households under a programme designed to buffer them from the economic impacts of COVID-19.
“This type of huge programme has never been done before,” State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in a message on April 10, the day the distribution got underway. “The resiliency of a country can be measured in terms of its ability to take care of its weakest people.”
The national committee for combating COVID-19 announced on April 6 that the government would distribute rice, cooking oil, salt, peas and onions to “basic class citizens who do not have a regular income” during the Thingyan period, from April 10 to 19.
There are currently no signs of a serious outbreak of the disease in Myanmar, though the small number of tests that have been done for the coronavirus (3,236 to date) relative to neighbouring countries makes it hard to get a clear picture of its spread. Nonetheless, social distancing measures aimed at containing the virus – such as a soft lockdown in Yangon over Thingyan, during which people have been instructed only to leave the house to buy food or get medical help – risk driving millions of people deeper into poverty.
Despite detailed, 16-point criteria for receiving the government donations, authorities in Yangon drew up a list of 600,000 eligible households, and on the first day chief minister U Phyo Min Thein and members of his cabinet went to the industrial suburb of Hlaing Tharyar to distribute goods in person. State media has since detailed the distribution of goods from Kawlin in Sagaing Region to Myawaddy in Kayin State.
Civil society rallies
But alongside these officially organised donations, civil society and volunteer groups have also been working hard to distribute basic necessities to low-income households in an effort to ensure that no one in need misses out or goes hungry.
Many families are already feeling the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which initially disrupted garment production, tourism and agriculture exports when it emerged in January but has since sparked a broader economic downturn.
The World Bank has cut its economic growth forecast for Myanmar to between 2 and 3 percent, down from previous estimates of 6.3pc, for 2019-20. Although this is higher than most countries in the region, Myanmar’s poverty levels and the limited capacity of the state to support affected businesses and workers – particularly in the country’s large informal sector – could lead to a devastating economic toll.
Some organisations like the Khit Thit Foundation – a charity established by a celebrity couple to help children with heart disease – have focused on areas of the city with a higher proportion of low-income households. On April 5, volunteers from Khit Thit and another group, Clean Yangon, visited Hlaing Tharyar Township – home to almost 700,000 people at the time of the 2014 census, many of whom live in informal housing – and went door to door, handing out packages of rice, peas and canned food to around 400 homes
Others have focused on groups that tend to have low or irregular incomes.
One example is a newly established group called People to People, which has distributed basic goods to 2,660 trishaw drivers across Yangon, from Dala in the south to Hlaing Tharyar in the west and North Okkalapa in the north, since April 4.
The group’s donation event in Sanchaung Township on April 9 drew about 300 trishaw drivers, including some who had pedalled long distances to be there.
The trishaws lined up in two rows outside the gate of Basic Education High School 4 Sanchaung and entered one by one, under the guidance of Yangon City Development Committee officials.
The trishaws were first disinfected with a spray pump and a line of volunteers loaded each vehicle with a food package worth K10,000 that contained oil, rice, onions and dried red chilli. They also each received a bag of eggs from a nearby restaurant, which had decided to donate on the spur of the moment.
“That restaurant over there donated the eggs because they saw we didn’t have any here,” said People to People organiser U Zaw Naing, gesturing to a restaurant called No 1 BBQ, whose owners were handing out the bags of eggs to the trishaw drivers.
“This is a great example of people working together to help others. I really want to encourage more people to do the same … those who are a little better off than others should be ready to help.”
In an indication of the demand for such handouts, People to People began running out of some items halfway through the donation event, and its volunteers had to scramble to replenish supplies by purchasing them from nearby shops.
Some trishaw drivers opted not to take all of the items on offer so that their counterparts later on didn’t miss out. Ko Tun Naing Oo, who had ridden to Sanchaung from Seikgyikanaungto Township, across the Yangon River and south of the downtown area, was among those who got a smaller package of supplies.
“I have been waiting more than two hours,” Tun Naing Oo told Frontier. “Any food I get will be a help, particularly during the lockdown. I have been making less money these days because there are fewer passengers. Now most of the time only one person from a household goes outside each day, instead of two or more before.”
The group’s donation events in other parts of the city have also struggled to meet demand. In South Okkalapa Township there are 1,255 licensed trishaws but People to People only had the capacity to help 400, said U Kyaw Zay Yar Win, the YCDC’s head officer in the township. “We organised them in numeric order and the first 400 trishaws received donations.”
The packages distributed to trishaw drivers were provided by We Love Yangon, a charity chaired by Daw Than Myint Aung, who is also a member of YCDC and co-founder of the Free Funeral Service Society-Yangon. We Love Yangon said it planned to distribute aid packages to about 100,000 people in rural areas of Yangon Region during Thingyan.
Other large local charity groups have also been active. The Free Funeral Service Society has been not only donating meals and medical supplies but also helping to disinfect streets. The FFSS is one of Yangon’s most prominent social welfare groups; founded in 2001 by film director Thuka, it has provided free funeral services for poor city households and also runs a free ambulance service with a 24-hour call centre.
Meanwhile, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, founded by then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012 and named after her mother, has been donating medical equipment, including face masks, gloves, surgical gowns and hand sanitizer, to quarantine centres across the country, including Yangon, Bago, Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi regions.
Working together, working alone
One big difference in how the many charities, NGOs and volunteer groups responding to COVID-19 operate is the extent to which they work with the authorities. Where groups like People to People seek assistance from officials to help with their activities and sometimes donate directly to the government, others operate completely independently.
Ko Ah Yay Kyo from We Love Yangon said volunteers helping with food aid were not “political” and the government should enlist their support and collaborate with them to ensure a more convenient and faster distribution of food and other forms of aid.
Zaw Naing said collaboration between donor groups and government bodies was important because their skills and approach complemented each other.
“We could go to trishaw gates and distribute food but it would be less effective than if we have the assistance of township YCDC officials, such as for enforcing social distancing and also not leaving people out,” he said.
“On the other hand, YCDC lacks human resources so it needs volunteers to distribute food. It would help if more people did charity work and cooperated with the government.”
Kyaw Zay Yar Win from YCDC in South Okkalapa said officials had been more than happy to help People to People with their donation to trishaw drivers on April 7.
“They approached us and we agreed to help them,” he said, adding that it didn’t matter that the government was about to distribute similar relief packages in a few days’ time. “We welcome donations and are ready to help with distribution as much as possible.”
Among those that work independently is Food Not Bombs Myanmar, a “non-violent action” group of volunteers who have been regularly donating food to the homeless and the residents of slums for about a decade, and whose leading members are prominent musicians in Myanmar’s punk scene.
On April 10, Food Not Bombs Myanmar, the Yangon chapter of a global movement formed in the United States 40 years ago, donated rice, face masks, soap and hand gel to about 150 households living near a crematorium at Ant Gyi in Dala Township. Although it doesn’t cooperate closely with the authorities, Food Not Bombs consulted informal community leaders in advance to arrange distribution of the donations.
“We usually talk to community leaders to organise and then tell the households about the food distribution,” Ko Nyan, one of the three volunteers who took part in the April 10 hand-out, told Frontier.
The Food Not Bombs visit to Dala took place on April 10, the first day of Yangon’s 10-day soft lockdown.
Ko Nyan said he was aware that city residents were being told to stay at home but felt the donation was an exception to the lockdown order, and he planned to undertake more trips during the holiday to help out households that have lost their source of income.
“This is a necessary trip for people who need these goods and we are going to try to fulfil those needs,” he said of the visit to Dala. “During and after the holiday period we will continue to hand out food to the needy, just as we’ve always done.”
Ko Nyan said this work was especially important because some needy people might be left off of the list for the government food distribution scheme.
Given the long criteria – which exclude anyone who is a company employee, draws a pension, receives remittances from someone working abroad or owns any livestock, among other things – and the fact that the list of eligible households was compiled in just a few days, this seems inevitable.
Among those missed out was Ma San Oo, who lives in downtown Pabedan Township and sells clothing accessories on Anawratha Road. She was excluded from the food distribution due to residency rules, as her household list was from another township. The food package would have been incredibly helpful, she told Frontier.
“I have lived here a long time, but I was not counted as a resident of Pabedan Township because my family lives elsewhere,” she said. “With downtown now deserted, there’s no point even opening my stall, so I’m just surviving off what little savings I have and I take informal loans when I need them.”
– Additional reporting by Hein Thar