Vulnerable and struggling: Society’s poorest families suffering through COVID-19

Without work, they cannot feed their families, leaving many children with inadequate nutrition and in precarious situations

Sirinya Wattanasukchai
A middle-age man taxi driver in a blue shirt is standing, drinking a cup of water in his house
UNICEF Thailand/2020/Sukhum Preechapanich
20 May 2020

Suthat Namgasa is relieved to discover he still has one packet of instant noodles in his relief bag. He will eat tonight, but he has no idea how he will find the money to pay the next instalment on his taxi.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 51-year-old taxi driver has stopped working. He was simply wasting his time and fuel driving his taxi around Bangkok, as fewer and fewer people were travelling around the city. He was earning less than 100 baht (US$3) per day, and sometimes as little as 50 baht per day.

“I still have no idea how I’ll handle it,” he said.

Suthat was not eligible for the government’s 5,000-baht scheme, a cash transfer scheme for informal sector workers affected by COVID-19, because his name is listed in as a farmer after his parents. Countless low-income workers are in the same situation with difficulties registering for the cash handout because of their family’s registration.

What little money he earned did not even cover his daily meals, his rent, or the last four months of instalments on his taxi – 72,000 baht (US$2,300). He has no way of feeding and meeting the needs of his five-year-old granddaughter, Nong Nadia, for whom he cares full-time. Her mother and stepfather work in the northeast of Thailand.

A taxi LED sign saying "vacant"
UNICEF Thailand/2020/Sukhum Preechapanich
A taxi LED sign saying "vacant".

After seven weeks of lockdown and strict measures in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Thailand has seen a steady decline in infections, with zero cases in many provinces in recent weeks.

No one can deny that the lockdown, which has forced people to stay home, was a necessary step in containing the disease that has wreaked havoc in almost every country of the world. But for millions of people, working from home is simply not possible. Without work, they cannot feed their families, leaving many children with inadequate nutrition and in precarious situations.

A hand touching a note that shows the amount of fee for electric and water bills.
UNICEF Thailand/2020/Sukhum Preechapanich

Before the lockdown, life had been manageable for Suthat, who would leave Nong Nadia at a nursery operated by the Foundation for Slum Child Care in his neighbourhood. Every morning he would bring her to the child care centre and give her breakfast before starting his day driving his taxi, confident that Nong Nadia was in good hands for the next eight hours. On weekends when the nursery was closed, Nong Nadia would sit in the front seat of the taxi with her grandfather as he worked.

The government’s 600-baht Child Support Grant, a social protection payment offered to poor families with children under 6 years old, combined with his daily income of around 300-500 baht, allowed Suthat to pay for Nong Nadia’s day care, where she was given breakfast, lunch and milk. He was also able to cover his granddaughter’s other needs.

However, the child care centre is closed for now, and with no income Suthat cannot properly feed the young girl. Suthat had no choice but to send his granddaughter to stay with her mother and stepfather, hoping their living conditions would be better.

A middle-age taxi driver sitting inside a magenta-colored taxi.
UNICEF Thailand/2020/Sukhum Preechapanich

According to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, around 1.3 million children receive monthly income support under the Child Support Grant. To be eligible for the grant, a child must have Thai nationality (with at least one parent being of Thai nationality) and live with parents who fall into the low-income category. Parents can register their child’s name after birth and the child will receive 600 baht per month until the age of 6 years.

But in reality, the grant is barely enough for low-income families to survive on, especially those living in urban areas. The grant is even harder to live on during these challenging times, when vulnerable families working in the informal sector are losing their incomes.

The current situation is detrimental to the development and growth of young children, as the first six years are crucial for the growth of a child’s brain. These are the years which set a solid foundation for a child’s future. Over 80 per cent of a baby’s brain is formed by the age of 3, and during this time, up to 75 per cent of each meal goes towards building a baby’s brain. Just 15 minutes of play can spark thousands of connections in a child’s brain.

“A lack of nutrition or stimulation in early childhood leads to stunting and delay in developments,” said Khwanploy Cheechang, Social Policy Officer with UNICEF Thailand.

“Only those falling into the low-income category are eligible to receive the Child Support Grant,” Khwanploy continued. “This pandemic has left millions of people penniless and jobless, yet being out of work and penniless still does not enable parents to register for the grant which is provided for only the pre-existing recipients of the cash grant and does not include those who have fallen into poverty due to COVID-19 pandemic.”

No one should be left behind. UNICEF is calling for every child, regardless of the family’s income status, to be given the Child Support Grant. This basic income support is more crucial when crisis hits and can guarantee that families with children will have regular income to buy basic needs for children. The Universal Child Support Grant can prevent these children from slipping into poverty and ensure that their development will not be interrupted. The children of today are the adults of tomorrow, and to ensure Thailand has a quality workforce in future, today’s children and young people need to be supported.

Suthat’s plight is not unique. It is shared by millions of people who are struggling to feed and raise their children. Many parents, especially single parents, in many parts of the country are facing even worse situations.

Aree Nai-lang is a single mother with three children in San Kamphaeng, Chiang Mai. She lives in a rented room with her parents and younger sister.

Due to the lockdown, Aree decided to send two of her children and her parents back to her hometown in Mae Suay district. The hair salon in Muang Chiang Mai where Aree worked, earning 9,000 baht per month, has been closed for more than six weeks.

Aree was the only one in the family to receive the first 5,000-baht government payment last month. Of that amount, she gave 3,000 baht to her parents to take her two older children, aged 9 and 6, back to the mountains for the rest of the month. This left her with 2,000 baht to feed herself, her three-year-old son and her sister.

She and her sister are now making a few hundred baht each week selling garlands. Most of the time the family survives on donated instant noodles, rice and canned fish, as well as eggs she gets by bartering her garlands in the market.

“We have to survive no matter what,” Aree said, not knowing how long the small amount of money would last, or if she would get the second and third handouts as promised by the government. The money she borrowed from her relatives was used up long ago.

Aree said the 600 baht Child Support Grant she received for her youngest child stopped a few months ago, though no reason was given. The small amount allowed her to buy some diapers for her child to wear at night, and some milk to drink. These days, her son drinks milk less frequently than before.

Aree has no other choice but to wait patiently in Chiang Mai city. She can’t go back home to the mountains because she has no land to grow food and no house to live in. More importantly, her children go to school in Chiang Mai.

“If the lockdown continues for another month or two, I’m not sure if I can manage to feed my child and sister, or cover my children’s school fees,” Aree said.