COVID in myanmar, food
© Sergeychernov

The impact of COVID in Myanmar can be measured in the vindictively fast onset of poverty – with one third of households earning no money for the month

Myanmar is often mentioned in relation to an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, who are not legally recognised in the country and have been forced to migrate over the border to Bangladesh. The Burmese Government, a coalition between the army and former Human Rights Defender Aung San Suu Kyi, has forced over 1 million Rohingya to leave the country. From August 2017, the violence has been ongoing, with significant global attention drawn to the matter. The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice in 2019 to answer for genocide, an international case which is still ongoing.

Currently, the people of Myanmar, inclusive of any remaining Rohingya, are facing a public health crisis that threatens livelihoods across the State.

COVID-19 hit the world with equal vehemence, highlighting inequalities in economic status and access to healthcare as it went.

The challenge of expanding social protection in Myanmar

The International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI) studied over 2,000 women in Myanmar, from Yangon, to understand the situation of food insecurity in the region. Officials from several government ministries in Myanmar acknowledged this work, and accepted that there was a significant challenge in expanding social protection in response to COVID-19. This comes alongside the need to increase the power of COVID-19 economic relief programmes.

IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and lead author of the study, Derek Headey, commented: “Only 16% of our respondents were poor in January this year before the COVID crisis hit, but now 62% are poor. What is really worrying is that during the second COVID-19 wave one-third of our households said they earned zero income in the last month. That level of poverty poses huge risks for food insecurity and malnutrition.

“Though necessary to control the virus, lockdown periods have resulted in disastrous impacts on poverty and need to be accompanied by larger and better targeted cash transfers if Myanmar is to successfully contain the economic destruction of COVID-19’s second wave.”

Extreme poverty could be cut by 50% with a change of strategy

The study also simulated some economic outcomes, which taught them two key things. Firstly, extreme poverty at the national level will triple in lockdown but can be reduced by cash transfers – larger than the ones being used by the Government right now. Cash transfers are the donation of funds, often unconditionally, in this case from a local government to the people who need it the most. The cash transfer should now be 40,000 kyat – the equivalent of £22.90 or $30.48 – as this would cut the lockdown poverty rate by 50%. Right now, the cash transfer amount is 20,000 kyat – which is decreasing poverty at a national level by 18%. Secondly, the Government is offering a one-off maternal and child cash transfer (MCCT), which is not being distributed as much as it could be. There is only a 16% uptake of this cash transfer, suggesting that there is not enough information about this economic investment in the communities where they are most needed. The researchers propose that the government raise MCCT eligibility where possible, and that these cash transfers are made more accessible.

A little more goes a long, long way to fighting food insecurity and damaging economic fallouts in rural areas. Headey further commented: “The government of Myanmar has rapidly expanded social protection in 2020 and they should be commended for that. However, the scale of the second wave simply means they must do more.

“Over half of poor households in our survey received cash transfers by September, so unfortunately a lot of poor people are still falling through the cracks.”

Read the full policy note here.

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