Workers on their way to the factories in the crowded mornings streets./ Photo-Magdalena Vogt

How to fight COVID-19 in Myanmar: some ideas through a pro-poor and gender-sensitive approach

(This blog is prepared with significant contributions from Yaqian Liang, Private Sector Policy Advisor)

The world is facing the worst global pandemic in a century, to date it has reached more than 190 countries and territories and an estimated 800,000 or more people are infected, with these number rising everyday.. Myanmar is among the affected countries. The Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS) has issued several public health guidelines and the highest levels of the Government of Myanmar have been mobilizing around prevention and response to the pandemic. By the 31st March 2020, there are a total of 15 confirmed positive cases.

This crisis is said to be a public health crisis, but one with huge economic impacts. This is especially true for already marginalized groups in Myanmar including women and girls and those living in poverty. In Myanmar, more than twenty-five percent of the population is living under the poverty line and another fifty percent are just above the poverty line, with very limited access to health care, education, and social protection. The health sector has seen woeful underinvestment for decades and even today, only 4.58%[i] of the total national budget is going to health spending. With the pandemic now on Myanmar’s doorstep, it is clear that poor health infrastructure is increasing the risks to the population in terms of the potential spread and impact of the virus in the country.

Encouragingly, the government is taking some important preventative steps at this stage, including the cancellation of public events and gatherings and rigorous contact tracing for any confirmed cases. However, even if huge efforts are put into preventing the spread of this outbreak, some of the key problems will not be solved if the government fails to address another emerging disease the country has been suffering from for several decades. That disease is extreme inequality. Inequalities, be it related to the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, between women and men, or between different ethnic groups, are likely to deepen as a result of COVID-19 as the virus places enormous pressure on all aspects of our society.

Underlying inequalities mean that even more thought and attention is required to ensure that COVID-19 related public health and policy response take into account the most vulnerable. While staying at home may work for some, it is simply not an option for the woman who sells snacks in the market everyday or for the person working construction, and who barely make enough to sustain themselves as it is. Most people living in poverty depend on daily wages to get by, with absolutely no cushion of savings (work for a day, eat for a day). If they don’t work, they don’t earn. If they don’t earn, they have no money to buy food for their families that day, let alone the next. For many lower income workers, they also rely on public transportation to get to and from work, making physical distancing from others an impossibility while hundreds of thousands more live in inadequate shelters and densely populated, poor communities. It is clear these factors will exacerbate and worsen the spread of the virus and any response must take such considerations into account, looking to provide the supports that enable people to stay home and to access health care when they need it.

COVID-19 has already created joblessness in some industries, with more wide-spread unemployment expected to come soon. What protections and supports will these workers have to help them through the difficult times ahead? The recent labor strike[ii] in has shown there is an urgent need to pay attention to the challenges that workers are facing. Job insecurity is becoming a greater problem than being infected with the virus for many workers. Without proper preparation and plans to mitigate economic impacts of this pandemic as it comes to Myanmar, the inequality divide is set to worsen.

Gender is another layer of inequality. Most of the health workers, who’ll be on the frontline of infection risk, are women – and women will face extra burdens in terms of caring for sick relatives, as according to traditional roles women are defined as unpaid caregivers. Existing gender inequality, as well as lack of protection policies and mechanisms, will increase the risk of domestic violence for women during any ‘stay at home’ period; this has already been seen in other countries, such as France, where domestic violence increased by 30% under lockdown.[iii]

Not taking the specific needs of marginalized groups into account and not listening to their voices and priorities makes these communities more vulnerable in times of emergency, as we are seeing now.. If the needs and challenges of women, girls, the poor, persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups are not adequately heard and considered as part of plans to fight COVID-19 and its impacts, the absence of those considerations will contribute to those plans failing, and further entrenching long-term inequalities.

The government of Myanmar has initiated and introduced some important plans to support the country’s economy, such as the reduction of loan interest rates for small and medium enterprises. However, there is a need to define and regulate these processes, to ensure specific and targeted supports are also available for lower wage workers and those struggling to make ends meet as it is. Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s critical for developing a more equitable and sustainable economy over the long term.

The unfolding pandemic is also a test of business. Companies that fulfill their responsibilities and show a real commitment to society will be remembered. Around the world, both global brands and local businesses have shown that companies can and should play important roles—much beyond being a donation box. It is understandable that many companies are struggling with mere survival and can no longer afford operations as usual. However, sacking workers will not be a viable solution. Instead, maintaining a healthy and committed workforce is essential for companies to survive this crisis, and prepare for economic recovery. Furthermore, companies should see their workers as partners who have the same interest in making the business strive and seek innovative solutions jointly. Surviving this crisis probably requires companies to adjust many aspects of its operation and seize new opportunities. Only with the understanding and knowledge of workers, can the companies ensure the implementation of new strategies.

This is a challenging time for everyone. Things are unpredictable and uncertain. But we can turn the situation if there is great collaboration; more than has ever been seen in history, among individuals, and institutions. The government has the opportunity to institute pro-poor plans as part of its response to COVID-19, which should include an immediate increase of the budget for the health sector, inclusive decision making, especially involving women, and targeted approaches to reach all socio-economic groups and provision of services like Gender-Based Violence response mechanisms and psychosocial counselling. Business must ensure staff safety and well-being, through provisions such as paid leave for those who have underlying conditions, including pregnant women and lactating mothers, supporting all the necessary actions if an employee must go under quarantine or becomes infected with COVID-19, and partnering with government, communities and workers to prevent and control the crisis. And for all of us, we must be diligent in following the prevention guidelines from the health department and the World Health Organization (WHO), ensuring we do our best to keep our communities as safe as possible during this crisis

The future of Myanmar, and particularly of the most vulnerable in our society, now depends on strategic policy choices made by the government and responsible businesses, as well as actions taken by socially accountable citizens. Whether we win the battle or not is in everyone’s hands.

 

[i] Citizen Budget, 2018-2019 Budget Year, Ministry of Planning and Finance, Myanmar

[ii] Thousands of Myanmar garment workers go on strike to save jobshttps://www.mmtimes.com/news/thousands-myanmar-garment-workers-go-strike...

[iii] Domestic violence cases jump 30% during lockdown in France https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/28/domestic-violence-cases-jump-30-duri...