By Chris Morgan, Program Administrative Officer
COVID-19 continues to push more people into poverty, causing greater economic desperation and children to drop out of school to support their families. Individuals have been more marginalized and isolated due to lockdowns, and those already at the margins of society – for example, migrants and children in poverty – are disproportionately impacted. Due to various circumstances, such as cramped living quarters and working conditions, or restricted access to medical care, etc., migrant workers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The instability in their lives could put them at a greater risk of exploitation and trafficking. Partnerships with organizations like JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) help us provide more stability for them.
How COVID Impacts Migrant Communities
There are vulnerable migrant workers across Thailand, and because of the close proximity to the Laos and Myanmar borders, many people have found work in Chiang Rai province. The majority of those who are registered in Chiang Rai work in Mae Sai and Mueang districts – over 1,500 persons, according to the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) in Chiang Rai. Beyond this number, it is assumed there are many more who are unregistered.
Migrant workers are often subject to tumultuous working conditions, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the negative impact on their well-being. UNICEF has acknowledged this in a report as well, “For migrant workers in Thailand, fear of being infected with Covid-19 is the most common concern and source of stress. Concerns about family wellbeing were found to be the main source of stress among housewives and married women… Without sickness benefits, many informal migrant workers cannot afford to stop working even when ill, which will likely exacerbate their medical condition and increase transmission to others.”
Our Partnership with JICA
Because migrant workers and their families are often particularly vulnerable to trafficking, The Freedom Story partnered with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) to support their community from September of last year through March of this year. This partnership targeted migrant workers who have been adversely impacted by COVID-19. We were able to conduct survey research of migrants, train migrant volunteers, distribute COVID prevention materials, and continue developing relationships with local government and the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH).
On the Survey Research
The survey research portion of the project gathered data on how COVID-19 impacts the migrant communities in Chiang Rai. This data helped us better understand the needs and perceptions of the migrant worker population. We found there was a significant misunderstanding of the government’s COVID-19 policies and that there was a shortage of antigen test kits, rendering the likelihood of catching an outbreak in a timely manner slim.
On Training Volunteers
When outreach to migrant communities was restricted due to COVID concerns, we adapted by identifing 72 leaders throughout the ten communities and training them as volunteers to support health in their communities. The migrant health volunteers joined alongside The Freedom Story and the MOPH (Ministry of Public Health) to receive training on COVID safety protocols, prevention, symptoms, post contraction protocols, and antigen test kit usage. Volunteers were trained in conducting antigen tests and conducted the tests themselves in many communities. We believe equipping leaders from within each community to meet their community’s unique needs is a very effective way to have a deep and sustainable impact.
On Distributing COVID Hygiene Materials
Our partnership with JICA also made it possible to provide more than 3,400 antigen test kits for over 1,200 migrant workers, alcohol gel for all communities, and masks for every one of the migrant workers in the ten communities. We also provided training materials on proper use and care for the COVID-19 prevention materials in the native Burmese language. Materials are rarely provided in migrants’ native languages, so these training materials were especially helpful.
Collaboration Provides a Huge Bump in Effectiveness
Throughout the project’s entirety, we worked in close coordination with local government, especially the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH). Collaboration with the MOPH provided valuable insights and helped tremendously in our planning. Their expertise and suggestions regarding the COVID-19 effect on migrant communities have helped The Freedom Story stay focused on the communities most in need.
The initiative to recruit and train of the migrant health volunteers provided a key way to expand outreach, a challenge many NGOs have faced due to COVID. It also provided volunteers with experience in leading their communities towards safety. They can now protect themselves and their families from COVID-19 and better understand the protocol and safety precautions if someone in their workplace or home tests positive.
We are incredibly thankful for our partnership with JICA Thailand and the local Ministry of Public Health for enabling us to assist over 1,200 migrant workers in the community directly.