Covid-19 outbreak puts the poor in dire straits

By Pham Nga, Phan Diep   April 1, 2020 | 07:00 pm PT
Covid-19 outbreak puts the poor in dire straits
Many street vendors in Vietnam, usually migrant workers, are crippled by loss of income and debts due to Covid-19. Photo by VnExpress/Hanh Huong.
Street vendor Le Thi Hong could not sleep as thoughts over numerous expenses bombarded her.

Hong woke her child at 4 a.m. to get ready for a new day. The 38-year-old street vendor and her four-year-old daughter lives in a 12-square-meter rented room in Dong Nai Province near HCMC.

The girl, still hungry for more sleep, shared a bowl of instant noodles with her mom.

After the meager breakfast, Hong brought her daughter to an acquaintance who takes care of the child for VND60,000 ($2.5) a day before she hit the street in search of customers. She carried a basket of different tiny things like Q-tips, hair ties and key chains.

Before the Lunar New Year festival, Sunday felt like payday to street vendors like Hong.

"On Sundays, profits were around VND500,000 ($21), enough to feed me and my daughter and support my husband and our two kids back home," said Hong, one of many migrant workers who left their families in northern or central Vietnam for a job in the middle of industrial and commercial centers in the south.

The first two Covid-19 cases in Vietnam, two Chinese nationals, were reported at the start of the Lunar New Year holiday, on January 23.

In the wake of the Covid-19 spread, restaurants are closed, factory workers are out of work, people receive decreased salaries and shop less. Street vendors like Hong receive nothing but ‘no's’ when trying to make a sale.

Having no luck on busy streets, Hong entered small alleys to knock on people’s doors, but to no avail.

"Give me some Q-tips you," a man told Hong before grabbing a bag from her basket and walking away.

"You forgot to pay," Hong called after him, but the man paid no heed.

It was near noon and her shirt was drenched in sweat. Hong had only VND80,000 ($3.4) in her pocket, not enough for the day's expenses. She took out a handkerchief and placed it on the back of her neck to alleviate the pressure of the string holding the basket she carried, and moved on to another alley.

"I don’t have any rice field, fishing doesn’t earn much, I have three kids so I had to migrate to make a living. Now because of the disease, people shoo me away like a plague when they see me. If I go back to my hometown I won’t know what to do," Hong said.

She earns about VND100,000 ($4.2) a day, only a third of what she used to. Hong still buys her daughter milk and pays for her daycare. Their meal consisting of 100 gram of meat, an egg and vegetables costs VND40,000. Her daughter usually gets the meat and egg, while Hong eats dried fish.

A lot of neighbors had left Dong Nai and gone back to their hometown, but Hong remained reluctant until her husband pleaded with her.

"You stay but can’t sell anything. We are together, hungry or full," he told her on the phone as she wept.

She packed light and told her landlord she would return after the outbreak is contained. The mother and daughter got on a bus heading to central Vietnam.

She plans to buy and rear five chickens and plant vegetables to feed the family.

"I wish the sea is calm so I could catch fish to eat," she thought to herself on the ride home.

While Hong headed home uncertain about her family's future, some of her street colleagues in HCMC now depend on donations to stay out of hunger.

In their rented 10-square-meter room in Thanh Loc Ward, District 12, HCMC, Chau Ngoc Nu, 83, and her daughter Le Thi Kim Thanh, 48, both scrap collectors, waited gifts from a humanitarian agency.

Scrap collectors Chau Ngoc Nu, 83 (L) and her daughter Le Thi Kim Thanh, 48 have lost their incomes since the outbreaks ravage Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Diep 

Scrap collectors Chau Ngoc Nu, 83 (L) and her daughter Le Thi Kim Thanh, 48, have lost their incomes since the Covid-19 outbreak hit Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Diep.

Knowing they would receive five packs of instant noodles, five masks, and a bottle of soy sauce, Nu said with a sigh: "I have been eating noodles for days. We need more rice."

Nu and her daughter Thanh collect scrap for a living. Thanh’s child is a water delivery man, earning VND4.5 million ($191) a month. Nu and Thanh together earned less than a million dong ($43) this month. She’s afraid her grandson would lose his job now all business activities have been suspended.

Unable to sleep, Nu got up at 1 a.m. to look for scrap. She went through garbage bags in front of people’s homes to look for cans or anything she could sell.

"I have to get up early, otherwise garbage trucks will collect everything at 5 a.m.," she explained.

Nu only ate half an instant noodle pack for breakfast that morning, the other half shelved for later. Her 22-year-old grandson bought a loaf of bread for breakfast and cut it in half to share with her.

"You are young you eat, I’m old I don’t need to eat," she said, pushing the bread towards him.

On certain days when she managed to make more money than usual from the scrap she collected, Nu rewarded herself with a bowl of hu tiu (rice noodle soup with porks) and a cup of iced coffee.

Since restaurants were closed because of the Covid-19 epidemic, there are no more cans and plastic bottles for her to pick up. She has since forgot the taste of store-bought sticky rice and porridge. She even cannot afford to add some vegetables to her home-made bowl of instant noodle.

Nu suffers from a heart condition and ischemia. She has to take six supplements per day. To save money, she took three a day, then two.

Now, she has stopped taking supplements for a week. As her neighbors rushed to the market to stock essentials, Nu stayed back and checked her kitchen, which still held some rice, salt and fish sauce.

"This is enough, when we are hungry we can make porridge out of the rice," she said.

"If we run out of rice, we eat instant noodles."

Nu said she has to spare some money for her medicine, as if she falls sick and has to go to hospital, it would be worse.

Nu’s daughter, Thanh suffers from peptic ulcers, but she couldn’t afford medicine due to the loss of income. Neither Nu or Thanh have health insurance. The entire household’s expenses now rest on the shoulders of the water delivery son.

The epidemic has also crippled lottery ticket sellers, especially after the government ordered to shut down the business for 15 days from April 1.

Nguyen Thi Thu Thao, who lives and works in Binh Duong Province, another HCMC neighbor, was startled when she heard the news.

Lotterry ticket sellers in Vietnam are often the elders and people with disabilities with nowhere to turn to. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Diep

Lottery ticket vendors in Vietnam are often senior citizens and those with disabilities and little support. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Diep.

The 43-year-old single mother makes ends meet by selling lottery tickets. She doesn’t keep up to date with the daily developments of confirmed Covid-19 cases, but suffers the blow as it gets harder to make money.

She managed to sell a dozen tickets to some frequent customers on Monday. Strangers only waved her away. Vendors get to keep VND1,000 from each VND10,000 lottery ticket they sell.

"I can go around and try to sell until afternoon, but if I stop, my child and I will starve to death. When I heard the news, my head was in a muddle, I couldn’t remember where I was going," Thao said.

She has been selling lottery tickets to feed her child and pay school fees for over 10 years.

After work on Monday, she came to her landlord and asked for a discount on the rent, but the request was mercilessly rejected.

"I only feel sad and sorry for myself."

The next morning, Thao joined the crowd to stock food at the market, buying a few potatoes, two pumpkins, a cabbage, and a little dried shrimp.

As she was leaving the market, Thao heard a familiar voice: "Hey, let me give you a gift voucher and you can go to the park tomorrow to claim it. I couldn’t find you anywhere before."

It was Doan Thi Duong, owner of the lottery store where Thao gets tickets to sell. The 46-year-old woman felt sorry for the ticket vendors when she had to inform them of the bad news.

"Some looked astonished, others cried. I feel sorry for them so I decided to give them some gift vouchers. I was looking for them the entire morning," Duong said.

Hundreds of people get tickets from Duong’s store to sell. Most are old people, those with disabilities or homeless.

On Tuesday morning, Thao was one of the 200 lottery ticket vendors in Thu Dau Mot that received the VND500,000 ($21) gift voucher and a box of instant noodles sponsored by Duong.

"When I have money tomorrow I will also buy some meat and five kilos of rice. The city loudspeakers said we have to eat well to fight the virus," Thao said.

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