Covid fears, low finances keep migrants from going home for Tet

By Dang Khoa, Long NguyenDecember 26, 2021 | 04:47 pm PT
Covid fears, low finances keep migrants from going home for Tet
A farmer inspects a peach blossom tree in Hanoi's Nhat Tan peach garden in February 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy
Income losses and fears about the Covid-19 stigma they could face in their hometowns, migrant workers are opting to stay put instead of returning for the Lunar New Year.

It has been almost two years since Nguyen Thanh Tung, 28, a worker in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 12, visited his hometown in northern Ha Nam Province for Tet.

But this year too he does not plan to visit his parents, who themselves told him not to come because of fears he might carry Covid and be stigmatized by neighbors.

"Many of my neighbors are still afraid of Saigon returnees, especially with the Omicron variant," he says.

"So I would rather stay back and delay my family reunion."

But he has every reason to go.

"My father has lung cancer and I am not sure if he can make it through the next few months."

With the start of the week-long holidays barely a month away, many people who had left their hometowns for better economic opportunities in cities are stranded and cannot return to their families due to the pandemic.

Tet, which falls on Feb. 1 next year, is the biggest holiday and most important occasion for family reunion among Vietnamese.

But not this year, it appears.

Phan Nguyen Thuc Oanh, 34, a factory worker in Hanoi, normally spends half the Tet holidays in her husband's hometown in Ninh Binh Province and the rest with her family in Phu Tho Province.

But her parents have told her not to visit this year, saying they do not want to risk getting infected amid the rising number of infections in the capital, she says.

"Moreover, they said they will not be able to live it down if we accidently bring the virus back and end up infecting the whole village".

Her parents-in-law have not objected to the couple and their two children coming for Tet, but said if they do, the whole family would spend the holidays indoors and not venture out even to pay the mandatory visits to relatives.

"They ... are worried that neighbors will be afraid of Hanoi returnees."

"No one wants to face a stigma or be bad-mouthed by neighbors during Tet."

Vietnam reported 15,182 new Covid-19 cases as of Dec. 26, with Hanoi leading the tally for the sixth consecutive day. The Health Ministry said Hanoi had 1,910 new cases on the day.

Job and income losses the depletion of savings have also stymied many migrant workers' Tet visit plans.

"Going home is a pipe dream when I do not have enough money to buy food for my children," Nguyen Dinh Thu Trang, a worker at a textile firm in HCMC’s Binh Tan District whose hometown is in Kien Giang Province, says.

During the recent lockdown in HCMC she lost her job and had to depend on food donated by kind souls to feed her children. She now works as a waiter at a restaurant, earning VND4 million a month, while her husband, who used to be a bricklayer, now works as a motorbike taxi driver.

"We would rather stay in HCMC and earn more money to make up for a year of losses."

Many others too cannot afford the transport costs, but there are also people who not want to go back with no money to give their family. For Vietnamese, going home for Tet without new clothes or gifts for family members is unthinkable.

Data from the General Statistics Office shows 4.4 percent of the working population, or 1.8 million people, lost their jobs in the third quarter. The average monthly income fell by VND877,000 from the previous quarter and VND603,000 from a year earlier to VND5.2 million.

Normally a month before the New Year train and bus stations would be bursting at the seams with people scrambling to buy tickets. But this year train and air tickets are in low demand.

Officials at Mien Dong (southeastern region) and Mien Tay (southwestern region) bus stations predict ticket sales for the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday would drop 30-40 percent against last year.

The HCMC labor department recently proposed a VND870 billion ($38.3 million) Lunar New Year relief program for people affected by the pandemic and pushed back into poverty.

Low key

For many migrant workers, Tet is a time to take up extra and seasonal work as motorbike taxi drivers, cleaners and others to augment their modest incomes.

In Hanoi, Le Thi Phuong, a worker at a paper company in Long Bien District, will spend Tet selling banh chung and other home-cooked foods instead of going to her hometown in the far northern Lao Cai Province. Her husband will join the army of delivery workers to earn a little extra.

"I will send some money to my parents," Phuong, 36, says.

"Staying back in Hanoi helps us save money, which is good."

Away from the family during the big reunion season and with the specter of Covid still hovering, many are bracing for loneliness.

In HCMC, Tung says he will stay at home and avoid partying or meeting friends because "the pandemic is still here.

"I also have no money to party, and now is the time to care about our own health. I just want to be safe and reunite with my family soon".

Nguyen Thi Nga of District 3 also yearns to see her parents in the northern Nam Dinh Province soon: "I will wait until summer to go home. It is winter in the north, and so common flu and Covid could be a perfect storm."

She plans celebrate a year-end party with her family and stay at home "to avoid the pandemic.

"I hope Covid will be contained and I can take my children out to see fireworks, but I doubt it."

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