The coronavirus crisis causes economic damage - not only in Europe but even more so in developing countries. Three Helvetas staff members from three continents regularly report on how COVID-19 is changing the daily lives of people in Myanmar, Burkina Faso and Peru. Part five of this extraordinary diary (Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).
Burkina Faso: Economic consequences are becoming apparent
By Franca Roiatti, Helvetas communications coordinator for West Africa
Burkina Faso accelerates the return to normality: Government offices are open again, schools are gradually resuming operations from May 11, and public transport will soon be back to normal. Are these decisions based on a declining trend of infections? Yes, but only partially.
Protests over fear of hunger
The people affected by the severe reaction to the coronavirus began to take to the streets. At the end of April, after the reopening of the central market of Ouagadougou, small traders blocked streets and demanded that all markets be reopened. "We can no longer stay at home and do nothing, we have to make money: Our families are going hungry", one of the protesters told the press.
The following day, the Ouagadougou city council allowed the markets to resume their activities under security measures: Masks, washing hands before entering the market, social distancing. Walking through one of these markets, I saw how people were trying to respect these rules: Men armed with disinfectant gel invited people to clean their hands and expelled those not wearing masks.
Fight against rumors
The government, reassured by the fact that the COVID-19 case numbers are not rising dramatically (although testing capacity is still very low), is trying to prevent further protests and a worsening of the economic impact. In doing so, it is relying on compliance with preventive measures. Masks have been compulsory since April 27, but they are not popular and still few people wear them. News about COVID-19 and preventing its transmission has spread widely, but rumors are hard to prevent. For this reason, Helvetas project LAAFIA has produced a radio program against 'fake' news. It will be broadcast in the east of the country. Ououna Zango, the project manager, says: 'When we were preparing to give people better information about how to behave correctly, we heard different things: COVID-19 only affects the rich who sit in their offices with air conditioning, or coronavirus was invented by the government to get more money for the coming elections.
Support for local producers
The economic consequences of the corona crisis are a huge challenge. The export of agricultural products has slowed down and producers are facing difficult times: "I am desperately trying to help a group of banana producers to sell their bananas quickly, otherwise they risk losing everything," Teslim, one of the farmers involved in our project PAPEA to develop entrepreneurship and small-scale farming, tells me. The project, financed by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and implemented with a partner NGO, is now helping small businesses to develop coping strategies. The stakes are high because, according to the World Bank, there is a risk that this pandemic will push over 23 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and almost 50 million worldwide back into extreme poverty.
Myanmar: Not everyone receives food from the government
By Peter Schmidt, Director Helvetas Myanmar
Ma Phyu has been responsible for keeping our Helvetas office in Myanmar's capital Yangon clean for over five years. The 39-year-old belongs to one of the largest of Myanmar's many ethnic minorities, the Karen. And with her profession, working remotely at home is not exactly an option.
Your husband continues to work - without pay
Ma Phyu lives in Insein, one of the densely populated urban districts of Yangon. Her husband is employed as a guard at a private school where they also live. They sleep in one of the classrooms, their belongings are stored in a storeroom during the day. The school is closed because of COVID-19. Ma Phyus Mann has not received his salary since then. But he should continue to guard the area.
Only two streets away a person tested positive for the virus. Since then, the quarter has been rigorously sealed off. Only one person per household per week is allowed to go shopping in their own neighborhood. Since the Helvetas office is located in a different neighborhood, Ma Phyu is currently unable to go to work. When I recently had to go to the Helvetas office to do something, despite the basic home office rule, I was surprised to find her there. She was watering our plants. She told me that she had been able to convince the guards at the barrier that she had to go shopping outside the neighborhood. With the quarantine in place, she mustn’t go to work, I said, and I inquired about her condition: "The thing that bothers me most is that I cannot visit my relatives, even though they live not far away. And that I can't do my work." I asked if she had received any of the food distributed by the government. She hadn’t: "The neighborhood administration has posted a list. Our names were not on it. But the name of the school cleaning lady was on it. I don't know why they get rice and oil and we don't. But luckily, we can survive without it for now, thanks to my job." I wondered what she was looking forward to most. "To visit my aunt's house. There's always tasty food there!"
Pardoned prisoners in the coronavirus crisis
Insein is also home to one of Myanmar's largest and most notorious prisons. Traditionally at the water festival, the Burmese New Year, the president decrees punishments. This year, just two weeks ago, he pardoned over a quarter of all prisoners nationwide, exactly 24,896 prisoners. That is more than ever before in the last ten years. According to the figures published by the leading English-language magazine "Frontier" at the end of 2018, he has thus almost exactly compensated for the estimated overcrowding in Myanmar's 93 prisons. He did not make a connection with the coronavirus crisis.
Peru: Food for farming families who can't sell anything
By Kaspar Schmidt, Helvetas Program Advisor Peru
Week eight of the emergency regime in Peru has just begun. Shopping is now only allowed with a face mask and gloves. Gradually a certain emergency routine is taking over. Some weeks ago, improvised measures were still in place, but they are gradually being consolidated. All signs that the coronavirus measures will accompany us for a long time to come, that there is no easy way back to how things used to be. A bank here in the neighborhood had blue rings painted every two meters on the pavement to help people stand in line. As I passed by, I thought that they reminded me of tokens standing in circle fields in the Swiss board game “Eile mit Weile” (similar to American Parcheesi).
The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise
Every day we look at the COVID-19 curves. After seven weeks of the emergency regime, the number of cases should gradually decrease! But in the last days they have been increasing again, every day. When will the longed-for turnaround come?
In the meantime, we are adapting the Helvetas projects to the new circumstances. Together with partner organizations, we are helping farmers' cooperatives to find solutions for marketing agricultural products under difficult conditions. The cocoa harvest has been underway since April. The cocoa farmers in the Amazonas department are in contact with their usual buyers. However, it is difficult to process the sale. Special permits and negative test results are required for traveling traders. In some cases, the farming families will probably have to sell their cocoa at a much lower price on the local market. There is a great deal of uncertainty, and hardly anyone is prepared to create security by making a firm commitment or quoting a fixed price.
Farming families cannot sell products
On the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Junín department, Helvetas partners and staff are currently completing the distribution of baskets of basic food and hygiene products to 600 families in need. The strict rules of the emergency regime and the closure of many territories make it impossible for these farming families to sell their produce at the market. In order to contribute to their food security and hygiene during the period of physical isolation, the client of a coffee project asked Helvetas to organize and distribute the baskets of goods. Procuring the necessary driving permits and products from local suppliers proved to be a time-consuming process under the current restrictions. Thanks to Helvetas' presence and contacts on the ground, the project staff were able to quickly compile lists of beneficiary families in collaboration with local authorities and local decision-makers and deliver the shopping baskets to the families within a week.
In preparation for the post-emergency period, the Peruvian government has adopted plans to reactivate the economy in four phases from May to August. Helvetas is also preparing to be able to resume work from its office. When do you think we will be able to take this step?