Hunger Stalks Many in Myanmar After Double Whammy of Coup And COVID-19

Myanmar’s 54 million people were already among Southeast Asia’s poorest before the twin crises.
Hunger Stalks Many in Myanmar After Double Whammy of Coup And COVID-19 People push carts with vegetables for distribution during a 'Donate your extras, take what you need' drive aimed at helping low-income Myanmar households in Thaketa township, Yangon region, April 6, 2021.

After a yearlong shutdown of most economic activity to fight the coronavirus, many citizens of Myanmar are now threatened with grave food shortages 100 days after a military coup added political turmoil and military violence to their already difficult lives, U.N. agencies and activists say.

Even before the double whammy of the coup and coronavirus, Myanmar ranked last in nominal per capita GDP of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — a legacy of decades of war in border regions and mismanagement by the same military that seized power on Feb. 1.

The situation has gone from bad to worse with the military takeover and the violent repression of widespread popular resistance in a country that shook off five decades of military rule a decade ago.

“Many people in Myanmar are facing hardship now,” said Marcus Prior, deputy country director for the World Food Programme in Myanmar. He added that 3.4 million people could face “food insecurity over the next six months in cities across Myanmar.”

The 3.4 million threatened with hunger are mostly urban residents and are “over and above the 2.8 million people considered to be food insecure in Myanmar before the military takeover,” the U.N.’s food-assistance branch was quoted by the U.N.’s news agency on April 22.

“More and more poor people have lost their jobs and are unable to afford food,” said WFP Myanmar Country Director Stephen Anderson, who appealed for contributions to “prevent an alarming deterioration in food security.”

Families in and around the commercial center and former capital Yangon, home to 7.3 million people, were “skipping meals, eating less nutritious food and taking on debt to feed themselves” after losing jobs and incomes, the agency report said.

Military rule and the COVID-19 pandemic together could drive nearly half of Myanmar’s 54 million people into poverty next year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has forecast.

The two crises has brought the closure of factories that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in industrial zones, said labor activist Ye Naing Win.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, nearly 200,000 laborers have lost their jobs in industrial zones, a number that has increased after the military coup,” he said.

“Before, there were as many as 700,000 laborers in the textile industry alone. Now, the number has been reduced to 400,000.”

As of Monday, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports reported 142,963 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 16 news ones, while the number of reported deaths held at 3,210 since the first virus-related fatality was recorded in March 2020.

Nearly all factories and workshops have been closed because of the violent suppression of protests by the junta and fires at multiple factories at Yangon’s Hlaingthaya industrial zone in Yangon in mid-March, leaving tens of thousands of workers jobless.

The death toll since the Feb. 1 coup reached 781 as of Monday, according to a Thailand-based NGO called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Cash-poor Burmese

Some foreign investors have pulled out or delayed investments in the face of political violence and uncertainty, and with sanctions imposed on the Myanmar military and its businesses.

Citing World Bank and Asian Development Bank data, the Irrawaddy online news outlet said the coup had resulted in the suspension of 50 development projects and U.S. $3 billion in investment, with company registrations down 87 percent as of May 3.

A female worker and mother of three children in Yangon who lost her job when the factory that employed closed told RFA that the hardship and uncertain future she faces is making her ill.

“I have been laid off. I cannot get a job anywhere else at my age. I have kids and need to buy necessities. I don’t know what to do and it gives me headache every day,” said the woman who declined to be named.

A homemaker in Yangon said that her family can’t afford to buy anything though prices have not risen.

“We cannot purchase anything since we are cash poor,” she said. “Many people don’t have a job and they cannot buy food and commodities.”
The WFP reported in April that average rice prices had increased across the country by five percent since January, while cooking oil increased nine percent month-on-month, and chickpea prices saw a five-percent month-on-month increase. The cost of fuel nationwide rose by about 30 percent.

The WFP also said that prices of staple foods had skyrocketed in the border states of Rakhine, Kachin and Chin, with rice prices increasing up to 43 percent in some Kachin townships and cooking oil by 32 percent.

Bo Sein, founder of Bo Sein Humanitarian Assistance Group, has been providing assistance to low-income people in Yangon who work as construction workers, carpenters, or motorcycle, trishaw, and taxi drivers.

“People are facing hardships. The number of people struggling is very high, especially the squatters … [who] are low income workers living from hand to mouth.

“All of them have lost their jobs under the current conditions,” he said. “Taxi drivers and motorcycle drivers are not making any money. They are all struggling to survive.”

Domestic tourism hit

The economic woes also have hit the tourism industry, with a domestic tourism business owner saying he reduced the working hours of his staff to half-time, but then closed his doors as the economy deteriorated.

“The price of bus tickets has gone up, and people travel only for emergencies,” he said, adding that he has shut down all five of his branch offices.

“Most of our staff from other provinces have returned home, and their parents don’t want them to return to Yangon,” said the businessman, who declined to give his name. “Some employees said they will return to work only when they can work full-time.”

Myanmar political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said that the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated before the Feb. 1 coup that Myanmar’s economic growth would only be 0.5 percent, down from a previous estimate of seven-percent growth.

But the EIU now says that strong backlash to military rule with protests and striking workers will push the economy into a contraction of more than nine percent this year.

“Under the current conditions, people who live from paycheck to paycheck now have zero income,” he said. “It will subsequently hit the middle class next, [and] people like NGO workers who have regular salaries could lost their jobs. Their organizations could be closed.”

“Those who are still surviving by living off their saving and liquidating their assets could face hardships in the second wave,” he said.

Reported by July Myo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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