The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has triggered a global crisis of unprecedented scale, and risks undoing decades of progress made by developing countries, including Lao PDR, towards reducing poverty and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Following the reporting of the first cases on 23rd March 2020, the Lao government was swift in enacting a nationwide lockdown, resulting in only 20 recorded cases to date. The impact of COVID-19 on Lao PDR has been largely socio-economic as domestic and regional supply chains collapsed, and with them household incomes and consumer demand. The service sector has been hit hard, the tourism industry, with losses expected to be around US$250-300 million in the first quarter of 2020 alone. The IMF’s growth projection is expected to drop from 5.0% in 2019 to just 0.7% in 2020. The unemployment rate is expected to rise sharply to 25% in 2020, including over 130,000 migrant workers who have returned from neighbouring countries. The World Bank estimates that their loss of livelihood and ensuing abrupt return could result in the loss of up to USD$125 million in remittances and potentially push 214,000 people deeper, or back into, poverty in 2020.
The agriculture sector, which employs over 60% of the population, was already struggling with the effects of floods and drought over the last two years, and therefore continues to be vulnerable to climate and global shocks, with serious knock-on effects for food security, livelihoods, indebtedness, and malnutrition. Villages in the northern provinces already lack rice seven months ahead of the new harvest. Vulnerable groups, such as children and young adults, the poor, subsistence farmers, and women, are particularly at risk.
UNDP's Offer 2.0
UNDP and the wider UN Country Team in Lao PDR have undertaken several rapid and impact assessments to understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Lao PDR. The findings are informing the UN Socio-Economic Response Plan (SERP), which is led technically by UNDP in collaboration with the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office. The SERP will outline strategic priorities to shape the response of the UN, inform the response of the government, and offer a framework to help development partners focus their contributions over the next 12-18 months. In line with the global framework, it is structured around five pillars – health first, protecting people, education, economic response and recovery, and macroeconomic response and multilateral collaboration – with the short-medium term priorities designed to complement the longer-term direction of the 9th National Socio-Economic Development Plan (2021-2015).
UNDP is working with WHO, IOM, UNODC, UN Habitat and national partners to improve provincial and district preparedness, including at Points of Entry, to prevent a spread of the disease in a country with a weak health response. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs, UNDP is supporting provincial authorities to improve the management of quarantine facilities and to engage the wider public in addressing a possible spread of the pandemic. A dashboard will facilitate information sharing between quarantine centres, MOH and provincial authorities.
UNDP is an active partner of the UN Communications Group and has translated public interest messages into Lao and other ethnic languages/dialects. Additionally, AMARC-Asia Pacific, the regional office for the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, has partnered with UNDP to conduct a campaign promoting COVID-19 prevention through the community radio network in Lao PDR. These messages are being transmitted to those who are hardest to reach, such as those living in remote areas, and the visually and hearing impaired.
UNDP contributes to gender equitable COVID19 response by providing economic opportunities for women at the community level. These women groups will be able to earn income during the economic downturn through the production of in-demand goods such as reusable cotton masks. Moreover, UNDP will also provide essential packages which include hygiene products and dry food to poor households in target villages in remote communities.
UNDP is also supporting the government to introduce a userfriendly and cost-effective digital legal aid platform to ensure continued access to legal services by the country’s most vulnerable groups. This platform will enhance Ministry of Justice functions and serve citizens both off-line and on-line across physical and digital borders.
UNDP's environment portfolio contributes to preserve or restore the environment. As part of the socio-economic response, initiatives to promote employment in production of green products, services and processes, e.g. in the tourism industry will be boosted.
UNDP is supporting urban risk management and resilience under an enhanced holistic approach and capacity strengthening to prepare and respond to crisis, especially in cities and towns. UNDP is working with the Ministry of Health and provincial hospitals to improve medical waste management.
The lock down highlighted the paper dependency and limited digitized operations in many parts of government. UNDP is assisting the E-Government Centre in the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications to pilot e-office systems (Government of Laos’ proprietary digital office system) in target ministries in preparation of the new normal. UNDP is also procuring equipment, e.g. teleconference systems, software and licenses. A data visualization platform for Official Development Assistance and COVID-19 related financial flows is being upgraded to enhance coherence between financial resources and the recovery priorities identified by the government.
UNDP Lao PDR has re-prioritized and re-programmed its regular resources for COVID-19 response related work and is negotiating the same for some of its ongoing projects with existing partners. UNDP is seeking to mobilize additional funding for its response and support programme for recovery.