Poverty has killed a child, and many others are at risk

January 5, 2023 | 12:25 am PT
Tran Huu Hiep Economist, legal expert
I have kept hoping for the moment when Thai Ly Hao Nam would be taken out of the concrete pillar: he would be wounded, he would have lost consciousness, but above all, he would still be alive.

But that was only my imagination.

All hope was lost on Wednesday evening, when the authorities of Dong Thap Province announced that Nam had died.

Dong Thap's Deputy Chairman Doan Tan Buu said that a team of medical and forensics experts and local authorities concluded that the boy had died based on various factors, including the location of the accident, the depth of the pillar, the length of time the rescue attempt had gone on, and possible injuries the boy was believed to have suffered.

At the time of this writing, the pillar that Nam had gotten stuck in had yet to be excavated for a number of technical reasons.

Rescuers at the site where Thai Ly Hao Nam falls into a concrete pillar, January 3, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Rescuers at the site where Thai Ly Hao Nam falls into a concrete pillar, January 3, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

A colleague had asked me: "What if just now, all of a sudden, the boy appeared because he had been trapped in some other corner of the site, and had never fallen into that pillar? Could that be possible? How could it be that he had fallen right into that pillar?"

However, security camera footage at the site does not support her theory.

The 10-year-old boy, who weighed just over 20kg, had fallen into the hollow concrete pillar which has a diameter of just 25cm and a depth of 35m.

The unexpected accident took place when he was at the construction site of a bridge.

The failed rescue attempt has exposed the wide-spread neglect of safety protocols commonly seen at construction sites in Vietnam and it put into question the rescue effort, which was quite basic, confusing, and late to the scene of the accident.

After the rescue attempt came to an end, the authorities have a lot of work to do to find out the cause of the accident, determine the responsibilities of the parties involved, and to carry out humanitarian work to comfort the spirit of Hao Nam. And in my opinion, the most important thing is to find a solution to limit the dangers that are stalking children.

Ten days before Nam slipped and fell into the pillar on December 31, a five-year-old girl had the same accident in Dong Nai Province.

She was fortunate, however. She was saved 20 minutes after falling into the 15-meter-deep concrete pillar.

Others have not been as lucky. Several years ago, a seven-year-old boy died after falling into an irrigation ditch at a construction site in Dong Nai Province.

Not long ago, two children aged four and five in central Binh Dinh Province were killed after they fell into an irrigation ditch at a construction site.

Those cases are just a few among the hundreds of thousands of accidents happening to children every year in Vietnam.

Data from the Health Environment Management Agency under the Ministry of Health said an average of 370,000 children in Vietnam have accidents every year. Of these, 6,600 die, accounting for 35.5% of the total number of children who die from all causes.

Behind the pain of Nam and his family, are many more stories of pitiful children we need to pay attention to.

Dong Thap is not the only locality in the Mekong Delta where children are out on the streets and working to earn money. In this region, it is not difficult to find school-aged children struggling to make a living doing all kinds of jobs, from working as servers in restaurants to doing housework for families, selling lottery tickets and picking up scraps, as Nam was doing.

The 10-year-old boy was at the construction site of the bridge along with three other children who were his neighbors searching for pieces of iron to sell to scrap vendors.

The story of why he did that makes me feel a pang of pain. His mother said he wanted to join a martial art class and that the fee of VND60,000 (US$2.56) a month was more than his parents could afford. Nam was left with no choice but to pick up scraps and sell them to earn the money he needed. By the time the accident happened, he had earned VND21,000.

The direct and conspicuous cause for accidents that involve children is mostly carelessness and a failure to comply with safety protocols.

Still, I think, it is necessary to look at the root cause of the problem: poverty.

The Mekong Delta is one of the poorest regions in the nation, with only 11.4% of people over 15 having jobs. The ratio of students dropping out of high-school in the delta is almost three times higher than that of the national level.

Difficult economic conditions and the high cost of education are the main reasons why students drop out of school early in the region.

Meanwhile, there is a serious lack of job options in the region, the nation's agriculture hub, causing most people to leave for Ho Chi Minh City and neighboring areas such as Dong Nai and Binh Duong to work in the industrial, commercial, and service sectors.

Many couples have had to let their children stay back in the delta with their relatives while they had to find jobs elsewhere. In several cases that I have witnessed, the children left behind do not even go to school and there is no one there to protect or watch out for them.

Being pushed to the edge by poverty is not a story that only happens in Vietnam. We can also see this in other low- or middle-income countries.

India used to be shaken by the deaths of children falling into abandoned wells, manholes or poorly covered concrete piles, prompting the authorities to urgently issue a series of documents to tighten safety regulations regarding drilled wells. Meanwhile, the country's media simultaneously warned about the need to ensure the rights of children and to improve the quality of their lives, reducing the number of instances where children wander for food or play in unsafe areas.

In Vietnam, construction sites are extremely attractive to poor children in rural and remote areas. It is a strange world for them, full of curious things to play with, and especially, full of things that could be picked up for sale, in comparison to barren fields that have nothing to offer.

The "if only" exclamations of adults will always be too slow for the lives of poor children.

Nam's death awakens the whole society to one core thing: children deserve the right to be educated in schools and to play in a safe environment instead of struggling to make a living.

*Tran Huu Hiep has a Doctorate in Economics and is the deputy chairman of the Mekong Delta Tourism Association.

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