By Gita Sabharwal,
UN Resident Coordinator Thailand
Thailand’s overall response and ability to curb infections has led the World Health Organisation (WHO) to identify Thailand, alongside New Zealand, as a success story in dealing with the pandemic. Of course, that success depends on continued vigilance, a whole-of-society approach, and ramped up testing to prevent a second wave as borders reopen and economic activities are resumed.
UN staff have personally felt the effects of the pandemic – my own family reunification was postponed, and I hope to see my husband in person for the first time since the outbreak next month. At the same time, we are profoundly aware that vulnerable communities are bearing the brunt of this crisis, making our advocacy and work with partners all the more important.
The economic impact of the pandemic has been serious, with predictions of an 8.1 per cent contraction of the economy in 2020. According to a recent survey, 65 per cent of people in Thailand report that their incomes are totally gone or very inadequate under pandemic conditions, with almost the same percentage saying their finances had been adversely affected.
Having started in my position just one week before physical distancing measures were put in place, my view of Thailand has been very Covid-centric. As the resident coordinator, my focus has been on developing the UN’s comprehensive response strategy to the pandemic and positioning it to be cutting edge, forward leaning and offering thought leadership to sustain development gains and build back better.
Our understanding of the impact of the crisis and its implications on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continues to unfold as we speak. It is only now that we are more fully understanding the implications of Covid-19 on agriculture and farm households and the more long-term social impact.
Secretary-general Antonio Guterres set the tone for UN’s approach with his statement on “Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity”, while emphasising the imperative for a comprehensive whole of society and whole of government response. The Thai government’s contribution to the UN’s Covid-19 Fund speaks to this shared responsibility. Similarly, the role played by the one million health volunteers, two-thirds of whom are women, in contact tracing across the country speaks of the whole of society approach.
The government’s stimulus packages have been comprehensive, rapid and well-sequenced, constituting 15 per cent of the GDP. Almost half of the respondents to a recent survey reported having received government support. Modelling estimates suggest that while government expenditure is emerging as the most effective means to support growth and employment, cash handouts followed by soft loans are the next best measures. In partnership with the National Economic and Social Development Council, the national economic planning agency of Thailand, United Nations in Thailand will monitor the impact of these fiscal stimulus packages targeted at local economies to inform government programming.
The government will also need to closely watch the impact at the household level in the third and four quarters, and further refine the mix of stimulus measures with sharper targeting. In terms of vulnerabilities, the impact assessment indicates that young people could potentially lose the most given rising unemployment and with nearly half a million youth joining the labour force at a time when jobs are difficult to secure. Similarly, men and women impacted equally, yet differently, which will serve as a drag to the recovery process.
UN Thailand’s strategy focuses on investing in partnerships with a clear-eyed view to build back better, while keeping the SDGs on track. The plan combines a direct health response based on the principle of leaving no-one behind, while investing in forward-looking policies to protect jobs and economies as well as to strengthen social capital.
Our immediate health response focuses on supporting the government to strengthen surveillance and laboratory capacity, as well as to facilitate private and public sector engagement on vaccine research and pilot a “new normal” health service through tele-medicine. It also ensures that vulnerable groups such as migrants and refugees have access to personal protective equipment and health services.
In order to leave no one behind, UN Thailand has prioritised social protection, including successfully advocating for augmenting old age, child and disability grants. In dialogue with the government, we are supporting real-time monitoring of gender-based violence and violence against children while strengthening prevention and response. The UN is also mapping out a digital infrastructure to understand geographies and communities that are underserved to bridge the digital divide and support e-learning platforms for schools.
To build back better, UN in partnership with local communities are scaling up sustainable tourism models and protecting biodiversity, linking supply chains with markets to strengthen the network of community food management as well as working with small and medium enterprises to support green technology to jumpstart the local economy.
The UN is supporting dialogue with youth across the country to showcase innovations which have created jobs for the marginalised in response to the crisis. All evidence suggests that the pandemic will impact SDGs, but it doesn’t have to, as long as there is effective reprioritisation and public and private investments are strategically maximised. A resilient recovery will demand sustained economic support, long-term thinking and policies with a focus on building back better to jumpstart local economies and enable a green recovery.
Polling suggests that more than a third of people in Thailand have donated cash, food or supplies during the pandemic, with most donations under Bt5,000. To me, this speaks of the social capital of the country and in many ways the glue that holds society together. There is also anecdotal evidence that in more marginalised regions such as the Northeast and deep South, the scale of donations has been higher.
We have seen in Thailand and around the world that times of crisis bring out the best of people. Covid-19 presents unprecedented challenges, but also opportunities to build back better. UN Thailand remains committed to working collaboratively to recover from the pandemic and to rebuild for a more equitable, just and resilient society.