COVID-19 and Responses from Laos and the Greater Mekong Subregion
A Lao female informal worker carries a stack of old cardboard boxes for recycling
Effect of Lockdown and Quarantine
Just as lockdown and quarantine measures enforced by governments around the world have been critical to slowing down the spread of the virus, they have also had tremendous impacts on the way we now live and work. Domestic and international travel has been suspended in some countries, most non-essential businesses have halted operations and workers have found themselves working under strict safety measures, from home, or not at all. Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable as business closure means they must travel back to their home countries. In some cases, these workers are required to stay in quarantine camps set up near borders and survive on the little provisions they were able to take with them.
Across South-East Asia, various organizations and government departments are working closely to collect data on the impact of COVID-19 on the public, particularly vulnerable groups such as informal workers, and produce recommendations for moving forward.
Laos’ COVID-19 Response
The Laos government has taken considerable measures to fight against COVID-19. On February 3, the National Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control was set up to provide appropriate responses and disseminate information to the public. On March 29, the Prime Minister issued Order No. 06/PM, which comprised of a series of lockdown measures, such as an order for the public to remain at home, border closures, and prohibitions on the increase of prices for food and other essential products. These measures took effect from March 30 and are expected to ease on May 3.
Despite lacking equipment, medication and medical personal, only 19 cases have been recorded out of the 2223 people tested. Seven of the 19 patients are currently recovering from the virus--no deaths have been recorded. The low figure may in part be due to the rate at which tracing, testing and isolation are done, however, the efforts the government has made to educate the public on the pandemic as well as encourage them to quarantine themselves have been positive.
Measures to tackle the burdens of the lockdown and quarantine measures felt by informal workers and low-income workers have also been introduced by the Lao government:
- Starting from April to June, electricity and water bills will be reduced.
- Those who earn less than 5 million KIP (USD 570) per month will not be required to pay taxes until June.
- Loan and tax payments have been extended, and banks will begin to adjust interest and principal payment rates for individuals and small businesses.
- Social Security Fund contributions have been moved to June.
Below are responses from other governments in the Mekong region:
Vietnam has achieved many victories in their fight against COVID-19, despite being a resource-limited country. The most notable being the successful treatment of 201 out of 268 patients infected with the virus. No deaths have been recorded. Vietnam achieved this by responding to the pandemic early and using an integrated approach to fight COVID-19 that consisted of tracing, testing, isolation and treatment together with enforcing policies, enhancing community education and increasing social resources.
In Thailand, the government is taking substantial steps to confront the economic challenges that vulnerable groups are facing. On April 28, the World Bank shared an overview of fiscal and monetary packages introduced by the Thai government at the beginning of the year including steps taken in recent weeks, such as introducing relaxed loan payments, reduced social security contributions and tax deductions for SMEs. In addition to this, the government will also aid informal workers with a cash transfer of THB 5000 (USD 155) per month for six months--separate from the Social Security Fund.
Despite being the epicenter from where covid-19 spread to other countries, China has managed the outbreak considerably well. Within a week of identifying the virus, the Chinese government sequenced its make-up and shared the information with WHO. This was critical as it allowed researchers around the world to learn more about the virus and share details on how it spreads as well as how people can protect themselves. It also allowed laboratories to begin working on a vaccine. The most notable measures China took to contain COVID-19 was the speed at which a risk management response was initiated, this consisted of providing clear guidance on the scope of lockdowns, tracking individuals who may have had contact with confirmed patients, ensuring the availability of essentials such as food, building designate infectious disease care and management facilities, centralizing reporting and communication as well as establishing standardized electronic and tracking systems.
China has also taken measures to support its economy. Banks have extended loans, certain fees and taxes have been reduced to help small and midsized companies cope with the outbreak and debts have been rolled over, free of penalties and negative credit. A major difference in managing the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak is that China has not taken actions to support workers through direct payments such as in Thailand, however, this is believed to be due to two reasons; firstly, in China, state-owned enterprises serve as financial safety nets for workers, and second, around 60% of Chinese companies have cash on hand to continue operations and sustain employment levels for three months.
Managing the COVID-19 outbreak has proved a difficult task for Myanmar, after reporting its first case of COVID-19 in late March the number of confirmed cases has risen to 151. Six people have been recorded to have died due to the virus and an estimated 7,700 people were tested by the end of April. Limited testing capacity as well as reports of people dying while in the process of being tested has given cause for concern that the current number of cases is under-reported. Despite recent setbacks in tackling the spread of the virus, the Myanmar government has taken actions to ensure that low-income earners receive much-needed essentials such as food. More recently, the government has announced a USD 2-3 billion dollar relief plan to mitigate the economic and social burdens of the outbreak. However, it is not yet clear how much funding will be allocated to supporting vulnerable groups such as daily wage earners and ethnic minorities.
Oxfam in Laos’ COVID-19 Response
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, Oxfam is particularly concerned with the impact it is having on the most vulnerable members of our communities. In Laos, Oxfam has been working closely with partners such as the World Health Organization to minimize the spread of infection by providing the public with accurate information and advice in local languages. In addition to this, Oxfam in Laos is also collaborating with partners who work at the grassroots level, to assess the impact of the outbreak on vulnerable groups such as informal workers and daily wage earners. These assessments are critical to understanding, for instance, the accessibility of social safety nets for low-income earners during the lockdown, or how women and girls are coping with the health and economic burdens brought about by the outbreak. Sharing lessons learned and recommendations, based on community assessments, are also contributions that Oxfam in Laos is making to support the CSO community, as well as the Lao government, move towards inclusive solutions that aim to alleviate marginalized groups from the burdens of COVID-19.
Although it is beginning to seem that we are slowly moving past the peak of COVID-19, particularly as research and development for the vaccine are on the way, it is important for us to:
- Remain vigilant and continue to practice safety measures, regardless of the ease on lockdown measures, as this is sure to prevent further spread of the virus and in doing so save lives.
- Continue to support each other, whether as individuals or organizations, in following up on the welfare of the community and raising awareness of COVID-19 and protective measures.
- Appreciate that the pandemic is affecting everyone, but it is not affecting everyone equally. On one hand, we have a group of people to whom the pandemic and lockdown measures have been a great challenge but one that the aid of technology, to facilitate work, learning, and human interaction, has mostly helped to overcome. Yet on the other, we have a group of people to whom a day under quarantine or lockdown means that bills will go unpaid and family members will go hungry. Therefore, special attention needs to be given to vulnerable groups, particularly women informal workers who take on most of the burden in caring for families, to make sure they have access to essential services such as social funds and healthcare.
- Understand that the effects that COVID-19 has had on families, organizations, businesses, and the economy of countries will probably not be resolved quickly. It will be a slow and steady process; therefore, it is important that throughout this process all relevant stakeholders participate in the discussion on how to move forward effectively. This includes but is not limited to the farmers who are keeping us fed, formal and informal workers, health care providers, local community leaders and government officials, as well as businesses and civil society organizations. The more stakeholders that are involved in the discussion, the easier it will be to design a more well-rounded framework that takes into consideration the needs of those affected and how to support them, not to mention it will act as a critical blueprint for incidences that may occur in the future.