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The price of lockdown: Millions suffer at bottom of pyramid in south-east Asia

The story is the same for tens of millions around south-east Asia, where vaccines are in short supply and COVID-19 is rampant.

After more than a month of a nationwide lockdown in Malaysia the plight of the poor has spawned a white flag movement, with people placing them outside their homes to signal a need for food or other necessities.

In Cambodia, in Phnom Penh’s so-called COVID-19 red zones, it was low-income families hit hardest in April and May. Many went hungry as they were forbidden to leave their homes.

Mohamad Nor Abdullah, born without arms, put a white flag outside his rented room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to signal for help during the lockdown.

Mohamad Nor Abdullah, born without arms, put a white flag outside his rented room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to signal for help during the lockdown.Credit:AP

Vietnam’s largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, are also going into lockdown and another is approaching for Thailand, which is also being overrun by the Delta variant.

With low vaccination rates and high infections, governments have been given little option but to close up to slow down transmission, but it comes witha cost and it’s the vast informal sector that wears the brunt of it.

“They are the ones who are badly hit by the pandemic,” said Eko Listiyanto, a researcher at the Institute for the Development of Economics and Finance in Jakarta.

Local vendors sell pork meat and vegetables on a sidewalk as the main market remained closed during a lockdown in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Local vendors sell pork meat and vegetables on a sidewalk as the main market remained closed during a lockdown in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia.Credit:AP

“The street food sellers for instance … now the social restrictions [in Indonesia] limit the operational hours of restaurants, cafes, street food by 8pm. It creates more problems for some street food businesses as some food and drinks are only consumed after sunset.”

Then there are the potential flow-on effects, although not directly quantifiable, from economic insecurity.

In the Philippines, where hard lockdowns have been a feature of the pandemic, particularly around Manila, a 57 per cent rise in suicides from 2019 to 2020 was reported this week.

Malaysian police have also noted an increase in the number of people taking their own lives – 468 from January to the end of May this year, compared to 631 for all of 2020.

A resident wearing face mask sit outside his house next to barbwire at Segambut Dalam area placed under and enhanced movement control order (EMO).

A resident wearing face mask sit outside his house next to barbwire at Segambut Dalam area placed under and enhanced movement control order (EMO).Credit:AP

The desperation of many in Malaysia prompted tech entrepreneur Rezi Razali to this week launch a website and app to digitise the white flag campaign, facilitating a link between those requiring help and those who can assist.

When contacted Razali said there were about 3000 requests on the site.He said in many instances people had been offered help, to put food on the table or pay for rent, within 30 minutes of asking.

“From what I see from my data, the majority of the requests that we saw are from the urban areas, mostly Selangor and Kuala Lumpur,” he said. “The majority of them are out of work, mostly blue collar workers.“

In Indonesia, the government of President Joko Widodo has been accused of prioritising the economy over public health and not imposing restrictions earlier, particularly on Java. On the island where more than half of the population lives, hospitals have been inundated due to skyrocketing infections in the past three weeks.

A police officer stops motorists at a check point in Jakarta.

A police officer stops motorists at a check point in Jakarta.Credit:AP

Even when the curbs were eventually imposed last Saturday, before being widened on Wednesday, it was a decision made reluctantly.

Indonesia Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said in the fortnight before restrictions were put in place Joko had asked him to visit the poorest areas of Jakarta where two families share one bathroom.

“Health professionals see that the faster the lockdown is, the better. For the middle class and above the faster the lockdown the better,” Sadikin said.

“But from [the] other perspective – if you see there are many people at the bottom of the pyramid – if you talk to the 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the Jakarta population at the lowest level, they tell you, ‘Sir, we need to work to live’.”

A resident, left, receives food from a delivery man through barbwire at Segambut Dalam area placed under strict lockdown in Kuala Lumpur.

A resident, left, receives food from a delivery man through barbwire at Segambut Dalam area placed under strict lockdown in Kuala Lumpur.Credit:AP

Sadikin said that input was provided in designing the measures.

“This is not an ideal decision but at least we moved forward and made this decision,” he said.

Anti-mobility measures are due to end on July 20 but will almost inevitably be extended until infections drop, so the Indonesian government is preparing a social assistance package that will include 10 kilograms of rice for 20 million families.

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Listiyanto, the economist, believes the informal sector can handle the decreased activity for two weeks but if it is pushed out further “it will be harder for them to survive”.

Uwok, the motorcycle taxi driver, is thankful for the customers he still has, saying “it is better than nothing”.

But he hopes his city and country can contain the outbreak before too long and thus shake off the restrictions affecting his livelihood.

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