United in kindness, Thais launch food campaign for those left out of government's COVID-19 measures
BANGKOK: Pattawadee ‘Dao’ Boonsamak and her husband have spent the past three years selling rice and omelette on the roadside of Bangkok.
The couple works six days a week, more than 10 hours a day, in the sweltering heat, mostly standing behind a small second-hand trolley that took them months to buy.
Despite their hard work, money is never enough. Yet things got worse when the COVID-19 pandemic began to put financial pressure on low-income earners like themselves.
With rocketing levels of unemployment, many of their customers can no longer afford a US$1 meal, which comes with plain rice, some meat and an omelette.
“We’ve lost 70 per cent of income due to the pandemic. A lot of people can’t afford to buy our food. We’ve lost so many customers,” Dao said.
The 40-year-old never thought her business would be affected by the outbreak. She was not worried when the early cases were reported in Thailand.
But it did not take long before the situation snowballed into a health crisis that has so far infected thousands of people. More than 50 people have died.
The economic impact is far-reaching, particularly among day-labourers, who are Dao’s main customers. Many of them have been hit by the closure of department stores, restaurants and various other businesses and not everyone can access the government’s relief measures.
REACHING OUT TO MARGINALISED GROUPS
Frustrated by the situation, a group of Thais decided to step in and do what they could to help people in need.
“We’re looking at social disparity. The support system is selective and the planning process didn’t include marginalised groups,” said Arisa Phochaisarn, a Bangkok resident and PhD student in medical and health social sciences from Mahidol University.
“We thought about how we can help these people whom the government doesn’t see or reach out to. Then a friend told me about a movement called Pay It Forward, where you pay for a meal in advance to help people in need. That’s how I became interested in the idea and began designing food coupons,” the 27-year-old recounted.
In April, she started funding the programme with her own money and small donations from friends and colleagues at Siriraj Hospital. They include researchers and doctors who have been treating COVID-19 patients since the outbreak emerged in Thailand. The fund was then used to pay for coupons she had designed for distribution to food stalls in her neighbourhood. They are worth between 20 Baht to 40 Baht (US$0.60 to US$1.20) each and cover different kinds of food and drinks.
“On the first day, I gave the coupons to a few stalls and asked the sellers to give food to people who really need help,” she said.
Some children from a slum came to use them. I received a note – a piece of paper torn from a children’s book. It said ‘Sister, I don’t have money and would like to take three boxes of food for the kids’.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pay It Forward movement had already existed in Thailand but only on a small scale. Today, Arisa said the movement is spreading through communities nationwide.
Its popularity grew after her Facebook post on Apr 14 about the campaign she had started with friends. The post became an instant hit. It has been shared by more than 10,000 users and attracted nearly 1,000 comments – a lot of them feature food stalls that take part in the activity. Hundreds of people have reached out to ask her for the coupon’s format.
“Right now, the campaign has spread to different parts of Thailand. It’s getting bigger. We have it going in many provinces, including Uttaradit, Uthai Thani, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Saraburi, Ayutthaya, Ubon Ratchathani and Pattani,” Arisa told CNA.
“It has grown so big and way beyond my expectation. It’s overwhelming.”
"WHY DOES HELP HAVE TO BE SELECTIVE?’"
The world may be reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic but not everyone is equally affected.
In countries like Thailand, where relief packages have their limits and social welfare struggles to include all the citizens, side effects of the health crisis seem harsher for those on the margins of society.
To soften the financial blow on the people, the Thai government has rolled out a cash relief programme called “We Don’t Leave Anyone Behind”. The financial support package offers 30,000 Baht over a period of six months to Thai citizens who have lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, millions of people cannot access the programme. Its registration, which is only available online, is slow and complicated for Thais unfamiliar with the digital platform. Many others are simply unable to afford the Internet.
“Do you know some people only have 100 Baht and have to use some of the money to buy Internet data in order to get the cash relief. I know someone near my dorm with this problem. I may not be able to change the policy but this campaign is what I can do,” Arisa said.
The government didn’t consider how homeless people would be able to access the website to register their details or how an 80-year-old person or people with disabilities would manage to do it. Why does help have to be selective when we’re all feeling the impact?
With Pay It Forward, Arisa hopes help will reach more people who really need it. Every day, she and her friends spend about two hours in the evening visiting small food and drink stalls in different neighbourhoods and handing out the coupons to them.
Donors can then purchase the coupons from the vendors. The coupons can be used by the needy to pay for their meals.
Dao is one of the campaign’s beneficiaries. She received the coupons from a participant last week and her stall has since begun to see more customers. She said only one in ten clients would use the coupons and she often gives them a bigger portion of food without any extra charge.
“People who can still afford to buy our food don’t use them. As for those who really need help, they’d thank the donors and wish them well. A lot of them have been told by their employers to only come to work every other day or every two days,” she told CNA.
“Most of them work in the restaurant business and used to get free meals at work. Now, they don’t because many restaurants are closed.”
Shortly after the food coupons became available at her stall, Dao said residents from her community started to chip in. "A doctor came by and bought ten coupons the other day, saying she would love to take part," she added.
Arisa and her friends want to help as many people as possible. But they intend for the growth to be organic and driven by communities. It means not accepting monetary donations from people they do not know.
“We usually decline donation offers not because we’re narrow-minded or anything but because we want the campaign to spread across Thailand. If you give us money, it will only stay near us but we have people in trouble everywhere in our country. So community members are the best persons to distribute help,” she said.
“If people want to donate, we’ll tell them we’d like to send them the coupon format instead so they can download it and distribute help themselves.”