Low Income Workers Struggle During Covid-19 Pandemic

A low income worker holds a basket full of morning glory

Mr Khaek Sinlaphaseuth, 28, shows a reporter one of the plastic containers his family used to grow vegetables during the lockdown.

Khaek Sinlaphaseuth, 28, made a great deal of effort to explain to a visitor how his family survived during the month-long Covid-19 lockdown.

Unable to find the right words, he runs inside the house and returns with a big plastic basket, which is full of morning glory plants. He also brings fishing nets and other gear he uses as evidence of his current lifestyle.

“This is how we earned a living and what we did in order to survive during the lockdown,” Mr Khaek told the visitor, as he demonstrated how to grow vegetables and catch fish when the government imposed the lockdown from April 1-30.

Like other low-income households in Nongthatay village, Mr Khaek’s family of 12 transformed their small house into a mini vegetable garden and did whatever they could to ensure they had enough food during the nationwide lockdown.

Khaek’s family is one of many poor households in Nongthatay village, about 8km from central Vientiane. The family’s main income comes from making and selling aprons.

They have been making aprons and relying on the income from this family business for more than 10 years. But the virus outbreak brought their business to a halt and changed the way they lived.

‘’We had to stop making aprons as nobody wanted to buy them,’’ said Khaek’s mother, as she helped her son to tell the story, adding that the majority of their customers were Chinese who mostly returned to China when the first cases of Covid-19 in Laos were confirmed.

Some people stopped buying aprons because they viewed them as unnecessary while others wanted to save money so they had enough to buy food and medicine, which became more necessary during the virus outbreak.

When asked about his life during the lockdown, Mr Khaek said it was a painful experience for his family. They had to rely on themselves because everyone in the community was practising social distancing and doing whatever was necessary to protect themselves.

He said it was difficult for people to provide or receive help from others because they were afraid to make close contact and communicate with each other, adding that people in his community were keeping quiet inside their homes.

Apart from growing vegetables for the family’s consumption, Mr Khaek goes fishing in the Nongtha wetland, a few hundred metres from his house.

‘’Without the food we get from the wetland, we would not be able to survive,’’ he said, adding that his family were daily income earners and had no savings so  they were not in a position to stockpile food as wealthier families did.

He said the family sometimes had to break the lockdown rules by going out to get donations from rich businesspeople in the city. Although he felt unsafe in crowded places, he had to do it because he needed food for the family.

When asked about government aid for poor families, Mr Khaek said he had heard that the cost of water and electricity would be reduced but he was not hopeful about this because his electricity bills were now higher.

He said that what his family wanted most from the authorities and donors was seed funding to enable him to buy the materials they needed to make aprons now that demand was picking up again.

The family now had to borrow money from informal lenders who charged a high rate of interest. He wanted a lower interest-rate loan so they could make more profit from their business and have enough money to feed the family.

Mr Khaek said that although the virus outbreak had been tough on the family, the upside was that it had taught them some valuable lessons about how to survive in a time of crisis. But he hoped this kind of situation would never occur again as he did not want to have to repeat such a painful experience. Find out more about COVID-19 and Responses from Laos and the Greater Mekong Subregion