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Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Virus Stoking Fears Of Starvation

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Staying at home is synonymous with lowering the risk of contracting the deadly coronavirus. However, to the majority of poor workers without a working contract, being at home also means a higher risk of starvation.

Upon finishing his night shift, L. B. Trung, a security guard, cycles his bike to a bus station near his accommodation. He stops to take a seat under the roof and begins to eat dinner as a matter of daily routine. Now that the entire bus system in HCMC has been temporarily closed, traffic is incredibly thin. Yet Trung still feels less lonely at the bus station than when he is at home.

“People my age no longer fear viruses,” says Trung while devouring a loaf of bread. “I’m old now. Death is inevitable. What I’m afraid is having nothing to eat.”

Trung, 67, is living alone in Binh Thanh District, HCMC. Before Covid-19 broke out, Trung had gone around the city to sell lottery tickets in the morning and worked as a security officer in the afternoon.

“I was admitted to hospital last year,” Trung recalls. “As I had bought no health insurance and had no savings, I had to borrow money from loan-sharks. Of course, they charge exorbitantly high interest rates, and I haven’t paid them off yet.”

Trung says each day he has to pay VND100,000 to the creditor. His medical expenses are high as he is prone to fall ill. If he doesn’t do several jobs at a time, he will not make ends meet.

Like other elderly people in town, Trung has been receiving messages texted to him advising old people not to go out these days. He also often reads evening news about the spread of the pandemic in Vietnam and the world. A car operated by local authorities runs past the alley where he lives every day to playback recorded messages reminding residents of strictly complying with regulations against Covid-19.

As a follower of Đạo Mẫu, the worship of mother goddesses in Vietnam, Trung visits the temple three or four times a month. He believes the Mother will help him be immune from the coronavirus. Currently, he stops going to the temple and stays at home instead as per the instructions of the authorities. Trung also often prays for his safety. He always wears a face mask when going out to seek a deserted place where he can do his physical exercises.

Meanwhile, as the number of infection cases has kept rising in Vietnam’s two biggest cities, Hanoi and HCMC, the message that says “staying at home is patriotic,” go viral on Facebook and other social media. Every day, nonetheless, Trung still spends some 10 hours outdoors with his mask on hiding almost all his face.

But what worries Trung most now is not the virus or the failure to visit the temple, but how to get money to buy food and pay debt in the coming time. The shop where he is working for is about to close. He will then be totally jobless. Without savings, Trung won’t be able to shoulder the burden if the pandemic prolongs and the isolation continues.

“Fortunately, philanthropists have given me some rice and instant noodles,” Trung says. “I feel partly relieved.”

Trung spent his childhood in the last war. In the Tet Offensive in 1968, a bomb was dropped just next to the house of his family in Hue, Trung’s birthplace.  Miraculously, Trung’s mother and her kids, including Trung, survived unscratched.

“Yet the epidemic is different now,” Trung says. “I can see a bomb, but I can’t see a virus which is invisible. If bombs are dropped in one place, we civilians may flee to another. But the pandemic is worldwide. We have nowhere to escape.”

According to a research study on living conditions conducted in 2018, urban Vietnamese workers like Trung accounted for almost 23% out of more than 11.3 million old people. Trung is also among the 18 million unofficial workers, or self-employed people, in line with the norms defined by the International Labor Organization in 2017. Given his age, Trung falls in the category that is highly susceptible to coronavirus infection.

Trung may be unaware of the following grim fact. However, it is true that Covid-19 also fully exposes the dark side of population aging which has been ever devastating in many countries worldwide and in Vietnam. Elderly Vietnamese, prominently old workers like Trung, are extremely fragile in this ongoing pandemic.

According to Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute for Social Development Studies (ISDS), old workers without a labor contract are receiving two blows at a time during Covid-19. They are both very vulnerable to the virus and prone to lose their jobs, says Hong. They are also a group which is not included in plans prepared by the authorities and thus tend to be ignored in government policies.

Phung Duc Tung, director of the Mekong Development Research Institute (MDRI), says results of studies on living standards in Vietnam have for many years pointed out that the rate of old people who have to work to earn a living remains remarkable. The problem is they are mostly unofficial laborers who have no social and health insurances while their income is precarious and low.

The current allowance for poor elderly people who have neither pension nor sponsor is VND270,000-810,000 per person per month. Tung argues, however, that the support is perfunctory. This rate does not allow old people in urban area to maintain the minimum living standard, he says. During normal times, they are the most vulnerable. And now amid the pandemic, when economic activities have almost come to a halt, those poor workers have to face even greater risks of losing all their livelihoods.

Hong maintains that a better support for self-employed old workers to ensure their minimum demand for accommodation and food so that they can stay at home is also a way to contain a wider spread of the coronavirus and partly relieve the burden on the health care system. This category of workers is not very small. Nor is it so big that it is beyond the capacity of the State. The authorities at the grassroots level are able to identify most of these workers, Hong insists.

However, Hong notes that resources in society is substantial with a raft of institutions and individuals ready to contribute to communities. “If everything relies on the State budget and awaits official approval, I’m afraid that poor old people cannot wait,” she says. “The State should provide the legal framework so that social institutions can be established to help needy people who are more miserable.”

Agreeing with Hong, Trung says more changes are needed in social welfare policies for old people in Vietnam. For the immediate future, the Government should work closely with other social institutions to provide necessary assistance for old workers who have to toil away for their meals during the pandemic.

“That’s a matter of life and death of this segment of Vietnam’s demography,” emphasizes Tung. “It also represents the national stability during and after the pandemic.”

Three issues to be considered:

Nguyen Quang Dong, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and Media Development (IPS)

The Government’s proposal for a support package for laborers, including unofficial workers, is praiseworthy. However, three issues should be carefully considered.

First, the proposed support worth VND1 million/person/month in April, May and June, is too meager. This amount does not meet a worker’s minimum demand. To have more money for this support program, the Government should save more from normal expenditure. A 5% cut (from normal expenditure) means VND50 trillion more for the support fund, which is enough for every workers of this 18-million-strong contingent to receive VND2.5 million each a month to help them weather the pandemic.

Secondly, it’s not always easy to identify who should be eligible for the support. Data from tax authorities and social insurance agencies can thus be utilized to identify the group of unofficial old workers who don’t have stable income.

Thirdly, time matters much in this case. The Government should take action immediately because unofficial workers don’t have any savings which can help them survive.

By Bao Uyen

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