Policy implication for COVID-19 relief
While I am writing this, COVID-19 pandemic has been causing chaotic situations throughout the world, some countries more than other. Amidst the weeks of semi-lock-down stage of Bangkok, the citizens were asked to cooperate and stay home until 12 April at the least to mitigate the risk of virus spread. People have been working from home for a few weeks already and several of us could comply with the policy by staying at home as we can afford to do so. Even for me, I can't say that it is easy and I cannot imagine how distressing it would be for those who are going through economic crisis or those who have limited options and do not have the luxury to just stay home. Unfortunately, there are still a countless number of those which are having a rough time going through this situation. My colleague Nichapat did investigate into the current situation in her article Disaster preparedness and recovery: A privilege in a pandemic and have laid out the problem of inequality and inclusiveness in this pandemic situation.
Have we done enough yet to mitigate the impact and support the people to live through this once-in-century virus outbreak & global uncertainty?
There are certainly several measures that the government should take to help the effected individuals, tax relief is one of the key initiatives which can be put in place. Tax Foundation has been tracking the economic relief plans around the world. Among those policies, these are the interesting case study to look into 1) USA: expansion of unemployment insurance coverage, 2) UK: relief to cover lost earnings for the self-employed, 3) Indonesia: Waive income tax for individuals for six months. For sure there are various cases that Thailand can learn from and add to the withholding tax cut (3% to 1.5%) and direct 5,000 THB aid for three months to 3 millions people.
Moreover, policy like health insurance coverage and adequate equipment support for the healthcare staffs and government workers on the front line must also be considered. Another important measure is regarding the supply to the citizen themselves, in India, the government is planning to give out food supply for the vulnerable groups. "The government aims to distribute 5kg of wheat or rice for each person free of cost every month, with 1kg of pulses for every low-income family, helping to feed about 800 million poor people over the next three months. It also intends to hand out free cooking gas cylinders to 83 million poor families, a one-time cash transfer of $13.31 to 30 million senior citizens and $6.65 a month to about 200 million poor women for next three months." ALJAZEERA.
While the government focuses on the nationwide policy intervention, it will take time to operate through the policy procedure, for that reason, other sectors need to fill in the void in the local areas that are facing the problem firsthand. Exceedingly, the case which can be fulfilled is the lack of supply. “Authorities should recognize that malnourishment and untreated illness will exacerbate problems and should ensure that the most marginalized don’t bear an unfair burden from lack of essential supplies.” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, referred to 3-week country lock down in India. In Thailand, general supplies such as mask, cleaning gel are indeed hard to acquire these days, not to mention the shortage of egg that seems like a funny case, but they are affecting all of us too. News about people who lose their jobs, people who are more concerned about making the living for their family rather than the virus, hospitals are running low on crucial equipment are getting on the headline every day.
Bangkok most vulnerable and how to get to them
But who are the one having the most difficulty? How can we use the data to help us make decision while not ignoring the hard facts on the ground? Where should be the first focal point?
A few days ago, USL partner, SATI Foundation, came up with the idea on how we could strategically prioritize the relief effort to help those in need and to work coordinately among several partners for the systematic and sanitized way to handout the supply for the vulnerable communities. Accordingly, the target groups we have been looking into for our COVID relief operation are the elders (age 70 and above) and the low income households throughout Bangkok, as we consider them to be one of the desperately vulnerable groups during this pandemic. With a little bit of data scavenging and time digging into the statistic, and with the help from our research fellow, we came up with three maps to kick start the operation.
At a glance, the first map (Map 1) integrates the data set, district scale, between areas of higher proportion of elderly population and areas where low income households make up higher than 3% within the district. This can help us narrow down the time to process the data and start working on the ground while we refine the data in depth; even though we could see considerably improvement in the statistic and data gathering system from the public sector in Thailand but I can't say that we have a robust open data platform which we can use easily yet. Notwithstanding that we ought to give a remark about the data is the low income household data from 2017, this is the recent one we could find, while the elder population data was from 2019.
Consequently, with the first map and narrow-down focus to the specific zones of Bangkok, we could do the integrated analysis by sub-district so that we could accurately scope it down further to definite areas. With the second map, we came up with 3 groups of sub-district. (Map 2)
The first group that need attention the most are the sub-districts which have substantial number of elder as well as high proportion of low income households such as Samae Dam, Tha Kham and Bang Khae, the second group contains the sub-district with several aged populations namely Bang Sue, Anusawari and Ta Reang, etc. The last group includes the one which have many low income households such as Hua Mak, Bang Bon and Nong Kang Phlu.
Importantly, the next phase of analysis is to track harder-to-find data like updated unemployment rate, homelessness, migrant worker and develop them into the fine-grain sub-district data set for precise and comprehensive integrated analysis. We plan to digitize all the data set we have into the archive and GIS platform to have a better understanding of the situation as well. The next map in the pipeline can be elder population and low income household per sq.km, that will be more accurate to compare the concentration of the vulnerable sub-district by sub-district, for example Pom Prap district has 3 of the top five sub-districts with high aging population density per area in BMA. We can look even deeper into the local community scale as well if the data and time permit.
Of course the number might not add up or does not reflect the real situation on the ground, this is where Public Health Centers and Public Health volunteer networks came in. Spread throughout Bangkok, there are 68 public health centers, they are the entities which are working with the local public health volunteers to foster healthier livelihood of local community. The local public health volunteer normally take care of 10 - 30 residents within their neighborhood, they are trained and equipped with basic healthcare knowledge as well. These networks are also the ones who work on the ground and have the connection to local neighborhoods. With these two groups, they will be the connector who help us set up the supply distribution station. The way we envision the logistic is that the local public health volunteer will come to the station one person at the time to pick up the supply (5-kg rice, dry food, mask, cleaning gel and sanitation kits, etc.), the nurse from the public health center can help us with infrared thermometer to ascertain that the relief operation will not end up being the cause of the virus spread. We will try out the prototype system at Ford Resource and Engagement Center, Bangkok this week as the place have the facility that can accommodate this easily, we will have the assistance from the public health office 20 and the local public health volunteers from 17 communities from Pom Prap district to manage the distribution of at least 170 supply set. If we live in an ideal world, we would like to develop the integrated mapping platform in the district level (Map 3).
While, we might not have access to the data in local district scale yet but by working with the public health volunteers and integrate the data collection process (contact, needs, household situation, unemployment, etc.) into the supply distribution system, we may be able to achieve that.
What's next ?
This is just the starting point of the initiative. Unquestionably, there are several other issues that need to be addressed, for example what will happen when there is no active public health volunteer in the area? Which building can be used as the strategic drop-off and pick-up station? How to systematically and transparently track down the donation, demand and supply? The system need to be tested and be refined, the better we try the better it could be. Other than supply, in the medium to long term we can look into other relief efforts which can be micro-financing, job placement, re-skill training or mental health support. Ultimately, with robust data analysis platform, standardized relief logistic system, holistic & transparent coordination, it will enable us to do so.
Above all, USL are extremely lucky that we have the perfect partners that can push the initiative forward, especially SATI Foundation with the strong connection to NGOs and volunteer groups, and Scholars of Sustenance Thailand who has a systematic & high-standard food distribution system already, not to mention the connection to the corporate partners who are donating surplus food to them everyday. Day and night, both partners are working real hard to coordinate and manage the donated supplies in an optimal logistic system. The donation process will be through Socialgiver for transparent auditing process. The partners are also putting extra care to make sure that all the supply are clean and ready for distribution. Hitherto with the setup we have came up, it should be easy to scale the operation or replicate it elsewhere. Hopefully, this will be one of numerous additional initiatives to come to help us overcome this pandemic altogether.
Please join the relief effort COVID Relief Bangkok to learn more about the operation and help make it stronger. USL believes that through the values of Honesty, Empathy and Integrity we will make the difference. "We are all in this for the long haul...."