Provinces mishandle aid given to people affected by pandemic

By Hoang Tao, Ba Do, Tat Dinh, Le Hoang   June 12, 2020 | 08:03 pm PT
Encouraging victims of the Covid-19 economic crisis to “voluntarily” relinquish the aid is how some localities have handled the government's support package.

When Ho Van Lap received the financial aid he was entitled to from Sa Tram Village officials, he had to give back VND450,000 ($19.3) as "coffee money" and to give to other families that are not beneficiaries like him.

In their small makeshift house in Ba Nang Commune in Quang Tri Province’s Dak Rong District, Lap, 48, and his wife Ho Thi Lien, 41, eat bamboo shoot and fish caught from a local stream for lunch.

Ho Thi Lien and her son have lunch in their house in Sa Tram village, Ba Nang commune, Dak Rong district in the central province of Quang Tri in June, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao

Ho Thi Lien and her son have lunch with sticky rice, bamboo shoot and some fish caught in a local stream in their house in Sa Tram Village in Quang Tri Province. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao.

Lap said last week he, his wife and their five children ate pork for the first time after a long time after getting the government's aid for poor households affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In April Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced a VND62 trillion ($2.6 billion) support package to succor around 20 million people.

Lap's two oldest daughters are married and live in another province. The nine members of his family each received VND750,000 ($32).

But village officials took VND50,000 from each member or a total of VND450,000 for "coffee and sharing with less unfortunate families who do not qualify for financial assistance."

"If the village asks, we have to agree," Lap said.

Lap and his wife used the remaining money to buy 200 kilograms of rice, some pork and five pairs of new clothes for their children.

The two work all year round on their rice field and only earn enough to feed the seven-member family for three fourths of a year. They earn a little from working in cassava fields, but because the land has become barren, they only earn around VND6 million ($260) a year.

Other families in the commune have similar stories of officials taking their money.

Ho Van Hieu, 46, of Ra Lay Village said his family has been officially designated a poor one for two years.

Last week he went to the Ba Nang People's Committee office and received VND6 million. He was told to donate VND400,000 ($17).

"The village held a meeting where families were asked to give VND50,000 per member," Hieu said.

His family of eight has a small rice field that can only feed them for seven months in a year. Their earnings from a cassava field is less than VND5 million ($210) a year.

Ho Thi Men, 53, another resident of Ra Lay Village, who had to donate VND300,000, said, "Our family just wanted to give VND50,000, but they asked each family member for VND50,000."

Her ripened rice field was recently destroyed by monkeys.

Ho Van Mat, party secretary of Sa Tram Village, said households categorized as poor and not poor are not much different from each another but some had to give up their poor status for the village to earn points for poverty reduction.

The money collected from the beneficiaries of the government aid would be used for public purposes, he said.

Ho Van My, chairman of the Ba Nang Commune People's Committee, said he had instructed officials not to harass people for money and would verify and return the money to the villagers if the claims were true.

Unrecognized poverty

Elsewhere, poor families in Lac Son District in the northern province of Hoa Binh find they are not listed as beneficiaries under the support package despite being stricken by the economic crisis.

Bui Thi Lim, 54, is one of them. She has lived in a decrepit wooden stilt house in Tan Lap Commune for three decades. The widow and her sons are seasonal rice field workers in Hanoi who lost their incomes as the pandemic took hold of the country.

Bui Thi Lien stands next to her home in Tan Lap commune, Lac Son District, Hoa Binh Province, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Van Dong

Bui Thi Lien stands outside her home in Tan Lap Commune in Lac Son District, Hoa Binh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Van Dong.

She said: "The neighborhood chief said my family has been excluded from the list of near-poor households, but I was never informed about this. Meanwhile, some affluent families with two-story houses whose members are commune officials have received the aid. That's not fair."

Bui Van Tuyen, chairman of the commune people’s committee, said his office has reviewed the list of beneficiaries and it was an error. But he blamed the mistake on slowness in classifying households since "some households used to be rich but have had bad luck in business and now are in a difficult situation."

The same problem has been found in the neighboring Quy Hoa Commune, causing Lac Son District authorities to recently suspend four officials in Tan Lap and Quy Hoa communes.

They also found 13 commune officials had wrongly received the government aid, and have taken back the money.

Lac Son District authorities have distributed a total of VND47 billion ($2 million) to more than 63,000 poor and near-poor families.

Not giving up their aid

Some beneficiaries in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa were urged to "voluntarily" give up the financial aid. Officials even printed forms for people to fill to forfeit the money, but stopped using them after there was a public backlash.

Last month thousands of people in various districts in the province seemed to relinquish the aid money by filling the forms.

While some families told VnExpress they did so voluntarily to shore up the district’s finances, others said they were urged by officials to sign the form.

Nguyen Thi Luyen, 48, from Hai Ninh Commune in Tinh Gia District, was among the latter.

She used to steam fish for a local factory while her husband is a construction worker. Their jobs have not been stable and their family has been classified as "near poor".

As the pandemic took hold of the economy, Luyen quit her job and their family has become entirely dependent on Tien's income.

In May, when she learned about the government's support package, she thought that her family would also benefit from it. But then she was told by officials in the village to sign a form, which turned out to be a formal forfeit of the aid she was entitled to.

"I signed it but I did not know what it was about," Luyen said.

After the Thanh Hoa story was exposed by local media, officials apologized and gave the poor residents the chance to choose between still giving up their aid or taking it back.

Luyen decided to take her family's part.

"It's the government's gift. I'm happy to accept it."

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