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A Standstill in Close-up

The pandemic has created a second wave and it is taking a devastating toll across every corner of the country. The widespread closure of workplaces, markets and schools, deterioration of economic situations and deep containment measures have led to a Covid-19 recession. ADB estimates Myanmar’s GDP will contract to average about 1.8% in 2020. Government is facing tremendous challenges in addressing the urgent health crisis involving procuring ventilators, test kits and shelter space for conflicted people as well as continuing to provide safe health services to unaffected people and navigating the complex process of safely reopening the economy. This economic toll may reverse reforms and poverty reduction unless effective solutions are found.


Along the course for transformation, jobs were a key ingredient to get out of poverty and a major force of social development in a country which has been grappling with ongoing conflicts. Job growth averaged 13% annually between 2014 and 2016 and there are around 24 million jobs, according to the information from the World Bank. Since before the pandemic hit, the ultra-poor exists in the country with chronic challenges such as unequal wealth distribution, straining healthcare services and border conflicts. It’s no surprise that the poor and vulnerable are feeling the full brunt of impacts in the wake of the pandemic.

In that regard, there are over 19 million women and men working in medium to high impact sectors who are negatively impacted by the Covid-19, according to ILO assessment (in the figure). The impact may include losses of jobs, and potential layoff or take work off, and have to work at reduced earnings for reduced working hours. Over the Covid-19 course, economic sectors are hit in different severity. Under strict domestic and international travel restrictions, tourism and hospitality associated businesses encountered business closures, and some hotels in Yangon have transformed into quarantine centres to fill in the country’s capacity to deal with the disease. The transportation and communication and food services are directly impacted too, as their demand is not likely to pick up immediately after the lockdown. Manufacturing has witnessed a marked drop in export especially in the export-oriented garment and textile factories which employ half of 2.4 million workers in the sector. According to the Ministry of Labour and Immigration, there is an estimated job loss of a million people either from the formal sector or migrant workers. 

Speaking of low-income groups largely existing in the informal sector, COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of migrant workers. Although there is a limitation in research to know the updated number of migrant workers, there are 4.7 million people, or nearly one in ten people, moved from their usual place of residence in the five years preceding the 2014 Census, mostly for work. Recent news reports say stringent restrictions in Thailand (a major destination for oversea work for low-skilled labour) have caused thousands of Myanmar workers to return to their homes. Meanwhile, there are many jobless workers who are unable to return home when their ID cards are taken by employers. There are over 300,000 international migrants in 2019 according to the labour ministry of Myanmar. Evidently, the economic crisis in the destination reduces the number of migrants, reduces remittances, and disrupts migrant systems.

In fact, those low-skilled intra-migrant workers who are working in manufacturing, especially in textile and garment factories, are painfully struggling for their families in between lockdowns and severe drop in demand resulted from supply chain disruption. Some are given little or no choice to return home unable to speak up for their rights and irresponsibility of some employers under the sheer event of Covid-19. In a recent article written by one of the global media, the Guardian, some female ex-garment workers entered into an illegal workforce and hardly make $5 a day as a sex worker in previous lockdown days. ILO assessment on employment in Myanmar notes that women are disproportionately vulnerable to job disruption in several of the media to high-risk sectors. Their employment share is around three in five in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and in recreation and personal services.

A high potential of job loss suffered from the decline of demand is expected in agriculture especially in forestry and fishing from which country earns largely from exporting to China, Thailand and some western countries. About 75% of the Tanintharyi Region population rely on the fishery sector, as reported in a Frontier article on the fishery sector. Seafood processing plants in Yangon are finding it hard to secure demand from both the international market and domestic market and closed down in the first lockdown. According to Myanmar Fishery Products Processors & Exports Association, the sector provides 3.3 million jobs, where about two-thirds work in the marine sector, with more than 300,000 employed in plants and the informal workers for the rest. 


Public education is swirling into uncertainty and should be looking forward to a hybrid learning – in-person learning complemented with online learning – in the worst case. Different levels of students vary from elementary-school-students, secondary-school-students and high school graduating students and college students are facing delays in their school calendar and develop unhealthy anxiety for their future. After the first wave in June when the transmission was under control, the education ministry introduced an alternate school system where two-week teaching and two-week home learning was arranged. Before the system was not tested on this new approach, the society suffered from a new wave. Universities including high schools are in turmoil following a new wave. When the cases are going up to 50,000 with an average of a thousand cases a day, full-time return to the classroom won’t be safe at all. In such a sense, education should not be a second choice.

Education will have to make space for innovation if transmission keeps soaring. Remote learning is less feasible in emerging economies with pre-existing inequality to formal education because the public education system falls short of budgets, lacks the digital infrastructure and has limited teaching professionals.  In fact, most schools in Myanmar have low digital maturity when it comes to online learning. Affordable remote learning at elementary and secondary school may involve sharing learning materials with mass coverage through TV, radio programs and phone messaging in addition to physical notes. Within the country, the delivery channel could be varied.  Rural schools may have poor or no internet access but sufficient physical space to bring back all students. Urban schools may have more and better digital coverage but less space.

Although the country connects better than in previous four years in 2020 with a mobile penetration of 120% and internet penetration of 41% of the population, internet lockdown and lack of electricity in some rural areas and marginalised communities are barriers to online learning. Big cities like Yangon and Mandalay mostly buy in education and have access to private education such as private tutoring, however, low income and vulnerable children are excluded from education and they have entered into the workforce as illegal child labour, according to local news media. Concerns are evolving around urban poor and rural poor secondary-school-aged children whether child labours will be rising as a consequence of economic crisis combined lockdown measures.

Closing Thoughts

Significant job losses follow every recession which can be seen in the 2009 recession, which devastated the world economy. As countries face a second wave within a year except for China, humanitarian impacts of Covid-19 recession are being felt in emerging economies. The year 2020 is a standstill for the workforce to expect frontline healthcare professionals and the economy except for telecoms and digital businesses, but a wake-up call for the government. People will never forget how they felt during the crisis, but this can probably become one of the reasons that will lead to a course for recovery leading to an inclusive, resilient and sustainable future.