Myanmar: How brave producers defy COVID-19
By Peter Schmidt, Director Helvetas Myanmar
Daw Aye Aye Naing is not one to give up so easily. She owns and manages her family business, which processes the vitamin-rich fruit jujube, also known as Chinese date, into juice, syrup and confectionery. The special thing about jujube is that its trees grow around the more than two thousand pagodas in Bagan, one of Myanmar's world cultural heritage sites. They help shape the unique landscape of the place and are worth protecting.
This is precisely the aim of the BioTrade project of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO, which Helvetas is implementing in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It provides access to sales markets. The entrepreneur Aye Aye is one of the project's first partners, and her business has changed a great deal in the three years since I met her: It has grown and become better organized, and Aye Aye now has its first contacts with international clients.
Working and living in the factory
In Salay, a small town with colonial roots on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River in the middle of Myanmar, where Aye Aye's small factory with 80 employees is located, the government has decreed measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A ban on assembly, a night curfew, restrictions on freedom of movement, health inspections of industrial plants: the usual program, that is. Aye Aye has called her staff together and proposed that those workers who wish to do so should stay in the factory during the period of restrictions and continue working in a closed system with minimal outside contact. Twenty women agreed. Aye Aye promised to help the other sixty out with rice and other food during the period without work and wages.
Traveling in a painted truck
The twenty female factory workers settled in. The local authorities gave their blessing and production continued. The demand for healthy food has increased. After all, the good products should strengthen the immune system! And so Aye Aye sat down in her small truck painted with her products and set off on adventurous journeys to bring her products to customers all over the country. This required persuasion at checkpoints, delivery of goods to the outskirts of the city and overnight stays on the roadside until the night curfew was over. At the same time, Aye Aye tried to obtain a low-interest loan to compensate for the loss of income that she nevertheless suffered.
Myanmar has also put together an aid package for small and medium-sized enterprises: 70 million dollars are available - in Switzerland the figure is 40 billion francs. Calculated per capita of the total population, this corresponds to CHF 1.20 in Myanmar compared to CHF 4,705 in Switzerland. All fifteen partner companies of the Biotrade project have applied for such a loan. To date, none of the companies has received any money. Well, there are courageous women entrepreneurs, here and there, who know how to help themselves!
Burkina Faso: Steps into a new normal
By Franca Roiatti, Helvetas communications coordinator for West Africa
Three men at the entrance help worshippers to comply with COVID-19 preventive measures. To enter the courtyard of the Good Shepherd church in Ouagadougou it is necessary to wash your hands, get a disposable mask, if you don’t have one, and have your temperature measured. At the church door two volunteers wait to find you a seat at a proper distance from other people attending the 9am service. After mosques, evangelical churches have reopened their doors in Burkina Faso. Catholic ones will follow this week. A further step towards normal life with coronavirus.
15'000 volunteers to raise awareness
In Burkina Faso, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, albeit slowly. To contain the epidemic, the government is counting mostly on people’s behavior - with the support of 15,000 volunteers who are being deployed all over the country to raise awareness of the virus and take the necessary precautions. And with the help of technology: young local experts have developed five apps that help people get the correct information, detect and report the symptoms of COVID-19 via mobile phone.
The extensive loosening of the containment measures, however, is raising some concerns. Buses that have resumed connections between the capital and other towns often transport more people than the COVID-19 protocol allows, making it difficult to respect physical distance. Masks continue to be quite unpopular, even though a tightening of controls has been officially announced. Meanwhile, the press is reporting on uncertainties surrounding the first COVID-19 death in March, which involved a prominent political figure. A situation that does not exactly help the government to gain the trust of the population.
Children attend "hygiene school”
All over the world, the coronavirus pandemic is showing once again how crucial credible institutions are to tackle crises and how important it is that people are informed and prepared to play their role as responsible citizens. This is why Helvetas' emergency project WASHPRO, while responding to COVID-19, is also organizing trainings to empower citizens and communities to manage their own water resources. How to ensure an equal access to water? How to manage the cash? How to determine a maintenance program? These are some of the issues that the members of the Water Users Association dealt with during our training, while wearing a mask of course!
And this is also why parents were so enthusiastic to send their children to the “hygiene school” our project LAAFIA is organizing even if regular lessons have not restarted yet. They are aware of how important it is for their kids to learn about personal hygiene and how to properly wash hands.
Peru: It’s the small things that matter
By Kaspar Schmidt, Helvetas Program Advisor Peru
Since the beginning of the week families in Peru are allowed to go outside again. Every afternoon for only a half an hour walk within a radius of 500 meters of their apartment and with a mask on - but out into the parks, out into the fresh air! So we also put on our newly sewn masks and jumped and ran in the nearby park, collecting flowers and leaves, happy to finally be outside again. The announcement of this step about ten days ago created important perspectives and strengthened our motivation to make the most of the remaining quarantine weeks.
Health system in a crisis
Here in Peru we are also experiencing how important the so-called small things are for our well-being. Or as one Helvetas Peru staff member describes it: 'We appreciate the simple, basic and necessary things much more again: family, affection, care, patience, respect, the food, cleanliness and a good conversation.
The Peruvian government has extended the state of emergency by another two weeks to a total of ten weeks. Now the high rate of daily new infections seems to have stagnated - fortunately. The weak health system has been running at the limits of its capacity for weeks. The currently available thousand intensive care beds with ventilators are constantly occupied to more than 80 percent.
The country helps the city
Over the past weeks, Peru has taken numerous initiatives to address the problems caused by the pandemic and its economic consequences. Various parts of Lima have established new producer markets, where farming families offer their fresh produce at attractive prices and in compliance with distance and hygiene regulations. We hope that these new markets will remain. Thus, the pandemic also sheds new light on the relationship between cities and rural regions and underlines the essential importance of the producing hinterland for the cities. Rural communities are now organizing food aid deliveries for their relatives living in large cities. This is what happened in the village of Kiuñalla in Apurimac, a Helvetas project region. At the beginning of May, the village farmers collected products for members of their village community in Lima. The district leader organized the transport of the goods to Lima, where they were distributed to more than a hundred needy families. In this example as well as in general, civil society plays an important role in the crisis.
We at Helvetas Peru have been working from home for two months now. For many colleagues this is a new way of working. The team quickly acquires the necessary skills for working together at a distance and for communicating via virtual channels out of sheer necessity. Paradoxically, as one colleague observed, despite the great physical distance, we currently have more contact and exchange between the various project teams at virtual team meetings than before. Thus, the new challenges and the crisis have brought us closer together as a team.