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Millions of Thais lose their rice bowl

Military-backed government accused of failing to provide food security for poorest as pandemic bites

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: April 13, 2020 07:35 AM GMT

Updated: April 13, 2020 07:36 AM GMT

Millions of Thais lose their rice bowl

People stand close together despite social distancing recommendations as they wait to register for government help for people who have lost income due to virus-related restrictions in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on April 10. (Photo: AFP)

Thailand’s military-allied government has come in for renewed flak over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with critics saying that millions of locals are facing the prospects of prolonged poverty.

The government, which is headed by a former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, has promised to give a monthly stipend of 5,000 baht (US$150) to low-income earners who have lost their jobs as a result of the countrywide lockdown that has been put in place to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

An unexpected 19 million people in a nation of 69 million initially applied for the handout last month, yet millions have already been turned down. Only 1.7 million people received the first handout.

“I've just been informed that I am ineligible for the money because I work as a farmer,” a young woman who recently lost her job as a consultant in Bangkok told UCA News. “I originally came from the provinces, but I have never worked as a farmer.”

Millions of Thais, especially in the country’s vital tourism and services sectors, have lost their jobs in recent weeks. Millions of others in the vast informal sector are likewise facing dire economic prospects.

The Bank of Thailand estimates that the country’s economy will contract by 5.3 percent this year as the pandemic takes its toll on domestic economies and global financial markets. Last year Thailand’s GDP grew by just 2.4 percent, which was considered low by regional standards.

There have been several recent reports of people resorting to desperate measures to feed themselves and their families. Many are pawning household goods to get money.

Last week a 25-year-old motorcycle taxi driver was arrested for stealing 6,000 baht from a grocery store in a provincial area. The man said he had stolen the money because no one in his family of six had enough to eat as he had been their sole source of income but was now jobless.

In another case, an electrician approached police officers on the resort island of Phuket with a single methamphetamine pill in his hand. The man reportedly asked the officers to arrest him and take him to prison, explaining that he didn’t have any money for food and couldn’t return to his home province because of the lockdown.

Before the outbreak, both he and his wife lived hand to mouth on their modest daily income, the electrician said, but now they no longer had any income.

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Several experts and opposition politicians have criticized the government for its mishandling of the pandemic, which they say has driven many poor Thais to the brink of starvation.

“Food has become a personal matter that individuals must handle themselves,” Dr. Wirun Limsawart, a prominent physician, told a Thai television channel.

The government, he added, has been ill prepared to ensure food security for the poorest and its “policies do not address this issue at all.”

According to an opinion survey conducted online from April 7-10 by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, the vast majority of the nearly 3,000 respondents from across the country disapproved of the government’s handling of the situation.

Nearly 88 per cent of those polled said they were very concerned about the government’s handling of the outbreak and wanted to see far more effective measures to help people with low incomes

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