Amid pandemic, poor are even more vulnerable

By Dang Hung Vo   August 31, 2020 | 04:32 pm PT
I have met a few women in my neighborhood who came from the countryside to collect recyclable garbage for a living.
Dang Hung Vo

Dang Hung Vo

One of them said she works hard so that her diligent child could have a chance to go to university.

To help them, I sometimes give them some rarely used utensils from home that they could use or sell for some extra money. Though insignificant, these acts make them open up a little bit to me.

They all look quite similar, middle-aged in traditional farmers’ garb, with slight sadness but a determined, hardworking attitude. They used to be farmers in some poverty-stricken villages in the northern Nam Dinh Province. As their farms were taken over to build industrial zones, they gathered together to find a livelihood in Hanoi, sharing the urban hardship.

One of them said though she still has some farmlands, the income from farming could no longer support her family.

Hearing their stories sadden my heart. It contrasts starkly with those of the many affluent families around me, whose children have a choice of going to top national and international universities.

What can be done to narrow such a large economic gap in our society?

The government is providing financial assistance to poor people and those losing jobs to tide them over the hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But when I asked these people if any official had approached them regarding the support, they responded with a quick and cold "No," as if they have been so familiar with being a neglected class in the society.

In March, after the government approved an economic assistance plan, I received a request from the Network of Action for Migrant Workers and Oxfam to draft a policy recommendation.

In the recommendation, we highlighted the vital need for supporting "workers without a labor contract and migrant workers in the informal sector," but it did not initially receive support from bureaucrats.

They added some impossible conditions for workers to get the money, including permanent resident status in the city. The fact is that most of them live in very cheap lodgings that do not come with notarized lease contracts.

Understanding the workers’ plight, we tried to convince the government to relax the conditions. After many rounds of discussions, our recommendations were finally accepted, and those people were listed among the beneficiaries of the government's VND62 trillion ($2.7 billion) support package.

As of the end of June provinces had approved 15.8 million cases for financial assistance, including people who had rendered meritorious services to the nation, poor and near-poor households and beneficiaries of social policies. That could have been considered a successful step, if there had not been reports of corruption in the handling of the assistance program. It is evident from the many cases where local officials forced poor people to "voluntarily" decline the support and affluent households were categorized as near-poor to misappropriate the money.

Of those affected by the pandemic, over 18 million "workers without a labor contract and migrant workers in the informal sector" face the most hardships. The urban impoverished do everything to make ends meet with no job security, terrified of what tomorrow will bring.

People wait in line to receive rice support in Hanoi, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

People wait in line to receive rice support in Hanoi, April 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

In late July when I heard about the resurgence of the pandemic with a patient in Da Nang whose source of transmission was not traceable, I had a hunch that subsequent waves of Covid-19 would be long and complex.

The hunch soon proved right, with an unexpected surge in the number of patients and the first deaths in Vietnam.

Now Vietnam and the rest of the world alike confront new, more infectious epidemiological types of Covid-19, capable of lurking stealthily in the community and targeting not only seniors but also young people, including toddlers.

To fight the pandemic, Vietnam requires unity of hearts and minds. The nation ought to find a way to co-exist with the disease with minimal economic impact while ensuring the safety of citizens, businesses and the government.

In the first half of 2020 some 29,200 corporations suspended activities, with 7,400 of them filing for bankruptcy and 95 percent of small and medium-sized companies facing an increasing threat of bankruptcy.

The situation, with no Covid-19 vaccine seeming imminent, is only likely to worsen.

According to the World Health Organization, it could take two more years to completely curb the pandemic. In the meantime Covid-19 would continue to make life difficult for all of us.

But I believe Vietnam, and all other nations, could embrace the situation with wisdom, humanity and responsibility.

We could stay calm and survive this pandemic storm.

*Dang Hung Vo is the former Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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