Voices of the vulnerable
Reimaging and better world after COVID-19
COVID-19 has left its mark across the world, and no more so than on the most vulnerable children and their families. While not the most at risk of the illness itself, they are already feeling the more long-term impacts of the virus.
From mounting poverty and loss of education, to reduced access to fresh, healthy food and raising concerns of mental health issues, COVID-19 has triggered a chain of events that will take years to recover from.
But there is a way to also use this as an opportunity to reimagine a better future for those children who were already struggling to get by. There is a way to use this moment as a chance to help young children across the region realise their dreams.
This is not about going back to what was. Rather, it is about reimagining a world where no family has to worry about feeding or educating their children.
With the release of ‘Recover, Rebound, Reimagine – Building a Better Future for every Child in East Asia and the Pacific, post COVID-19', the stories of children and families are being told to highlight to need for Governments and partners to take bold action by reimagining a better future for all.
“One day, I want to make my own longgyi [a traditional skirt] with many colors and wear it," says 9-year-old Lu Aung, who often helps her mother work.
Before the lockdown, her mother Maran Htu weaved longgyi’s to make extra income for her family from inside a compound for refugees in Kachin, Myanmar.
However, since lockdowns in March this hasn’t been possible.
This, says Maran Htu, has made it more difficult to afford the necessities. “These days, we just cook more vegetables, potatoes and sometimes eggs. But we can rarely afford to eat meat. I don’t even have enough money for their school books.”
While Maran Htu wants her daughter to focus on her studies, Lu Aung is keeping her options open for her future. “I want to be a doctor or a teacher… or a clothing designer” she says.
In order to make some money to cover medical expenses for her medical condition, Chompuu, 10, gets up at 6am each morning to sell fruit juices from a small cart on the streets on Bangkok, Thailand.
Her grandmother is left caring for her and her sister, and since the lockdown can no longer sell food at a nearby market. During this time, she began making juice for Chompuu to sell on the streets.
It's difficult and exhausting, but it doesn’t stop young Chompuu from reimagining a better tomorrow.
“When I grow up I dream to be a teacher because teachers have knowledge, teachers teach education and I like school,” says Chompuu. “If I become a teacher I will teach my young sister Ti-Cha homework. I want to have a business of making drinks, and have a shop where I don't need to walk. And buy a big house for my grandmother and my sister to have a big playground to play.
While changes have been hard for many, it has also given some young people like Kmouch, 18, in Cambodia time to learn new skills.
“Before COVID, I was practicing football with my team, and my friends. It was so much fun. In the mornings we’d play and chat together, and then we’d go and eat together. But during COVID, I just spent my time at home learning video and photo editing from my uncle.”
Tran Thi Ngoc Nhu, 11, in Viet Nam loves school. Her mother is unable to afford a permanent home and the family must often move to find a new shelter. Before, her mother sold scrap to get by but that wasn’t possible during COVID lockdowns.
“I have no idea what I want to do later on, but I want to continue studying,” says Nhu. “I want to continue my studies, I love going to class.”
However, during lockdowns this wasn’t possible for her because they do not have a smart phone or Wi-Fi.
“I stayed home all day,” she says. “I tried to study on my own, but I couldn’t do any online classes.”
Despite the hardships suffered by his family during the COVID-19 pandemic, Allan, 13 from Bohol, Philippines still dreams of being a tennis superstar. Before the lockdown he played regularly, winning tournaments and even small cash prizes.
But the lock down put pressure on his family, who were already struggling to get by.
His eldest sister, Alyssa, 20, works hard to support him and their other sister with their studies – both with her time and financially. Since the lockdown however the focus has been on pulling enough money together each day to put food on the table.
“Before COVID, mom would buy 5kg of rice a day, but now she can only afford 2-3kg, so we often just have one meal a day at the moment,” says Alyssa. “Our aunt helps us with vegetables and sometimes some meat.”
Many families across East Asia and Pacific like those of 9-year-old Mai Ra relied on informal jobs to ensure they had enough to provide for their children. But since movement restrictions introduced in March in Kachin, Myanmar, Mai Ra’s mother has struggled to make ends meet as it has been more difficult to find jobs.
During the lockdown, Mai Ra has been helping with chores at home. “Sometimes my children seem down or sad,” says her mother. “I don’t know how long this will go on for… Since I don’t have a TV or access to news, and I don’t use Facebook, I feel disconnected.”
She says she worries about the future for her children, not knowing when they can start learning again and for how long they will be stuck inside the camps. “I need to get more work, I have to earn more to help my children,” says Mai Ra’s mother.
Despite the hardships she has already witnessed in her young life, Mai Ra still has hope for a better tomorrow. “I want to become a doctor one day,” she says.
Thunwa, 10, form Bangkok, Thailand dreams of being an astronaut. “I will take my mother to live on mars with me. I will build a big city where we lived and explore the planet mars together,” he says.
His mother has an intellectual disability and worked as a dishwasher until the cafeteria shut down. It has been a challenge for her to look after her son and relied on donations for food and support from friends.
She recently found a job at the convenience store 7/11, where it is her job to take the temperature of customers and offer sanitizer. She earns around 100 Thai baht (approximatively $3) per day.
Thunwa wants to make sure his mother is well looked after on Mars. “My mother would work at 7/11 minimart which I built for her. There are also big malls where we could go every weekend. I will protect my planet with Thor’s Hammer!”
Len Socheata, 14, has intellectual disabilities. Before COVID-19, his mother would spend 5 hours a day selling fish and crabs at a local market. On a good day she’d earn $5, on a bad day nothing. Since COVID-19, the bad days are much more regular.
“Somedays I earn a little bit, we can eat,” says his mother. “But somedays if I don’t earn, we will have nothing to eat, so I have to borrow some food from other seller. I sometimes buy on credit from other fish seller, or grocery store for some fish or 1 kilo or 2 kilos of rice. If I could earn money tomorrow, I would pay them tomorrow.”
Sisters Vo Thi Thu Ngan, 13, and Vo Thi Thu Ha, 9, live in a small shack near Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. While on the lockdown they made the best of a tough situation.
“Me and my sister want to be beauticians when we grow up because we want to make others more beautiful,” says Ngan. “During social distancing period, I stayed at home and self-studied, but not all the time. There was no online class for us.”
“I liked following mother and helped her at work. During the pandemic, I helped her pull the [cleaning] cart, and clear the roads. At home, I could cook and clean. I want to continue to study further.”