The impact of COVID-19 has no boundary and affects us all. But the most affected continues to be the most vulnerable. The UN Country Team socio-economic impact assessment, led by UNDP which surveyed 1200 households in June 2020, found that close to 50% of respondents lost jobs due to the pandemic. Moreover, 99% of those individuals had no social security and 70% had no health insurance. When we dig behind these figures we see that certain groups are affected more than others, and this negative impact continues on into 2021.
Hormsupharb Village, had a unique character. Homely, and very inviting. Although it was merely a half an hour ride away from the downtown area of Vientiane Capital, somehow it felt more rural compared to the distance we spent getting to The Aid Children with Disability Association (ACDA) office.
There were several people sitting and chit-chatting around some sewing machines, while others sat on the rattan mat pulling spare cloth bits from bags beside them. It was impossible to hold back our smiles as they joked with one another and showing how comfortable they were to be together. Manith Philavanh, clad in a vibrant, orange-colored t-shirt gleamed as she welcomed us into the humble building.
According to Manith, the Association has branched out to extend their support beyond persons with disabilities to a wider group since the pandemic started last year. Manith and her colleagues in the Association were successful in applying for funding under the Public Sector Innovation Facility (PSIF), which is a unique new mechanism designed to support collaborations between local government and local organizations to address community challenges, supported by the Swiss Development Cooperation, UNDP, and led by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Between 2019-2020, her association received funding of 60 million kip from the PSIF, which they used to support over 100 persons from 27 families. Those families invested in small-scale but strategic activities such as mushroom farming, goat herding, chicken farming, and aquaculture. Manith shared, “the ideas were all expressed by our members. We try not to push what we want them to do. If they can be part of the initiative as much as they can- they will be more dedicated to following through with their activities.”
With a small initial investment of 2.2 million kip per family, the community was able to be self-reliant and the future looked promising. For instance, at the beginning of the project, the families growing mushrooms were able to generate 100,000 kip per day from mushroom sales.
But unfortunately, this success did not last for long. Soon after the lockdown was enforced in April 2020, the supply of mushroom spore, mainly sourced from Thailand, was disrupted due to temporary border closers. As a result, the mushroom production was halted, forcing the families to find alternative sources of income to cope with the ongoing crisis. However, because a large proportion of the funds received was already invested in the mushroom housing facility, the families either would have to look for new financing or alternative ideas that wouldn’t require too much extra investment.
After the lockdown was loosened in late May 2020, the families then explored other means to help them survive the pandemic. One idea was sewing foot mats using fabric scraps. The spouse of one of the community members, who works for a garment factory, discovered that there were bags and bags of spares that would go unused, and this left-over material could hold some potential.