Bangkok Post

Commentary: The really needy are missing out

- Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist. Paritta Wangkiat

Amid a shortage of medical supplies, many, including celebritie­s, have either launched or joined fundraisin­g campaigns to help provide medical profession­als with equipment needed to battle the Covid-19 pandemic in a show of solidarity and empathy in this time of crisis.

Even though millions of baht has been donated into these campaigns, those who need help the most have yet to receive a piece of the pie. Small hospitals in many provinces are still suffering from a shortage of respirator­s and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as goggles, face masks and hazmat suits.

The same goes for the government’s relief packages for those affected by the outbreak. Low-income workers living in Bangkok’s slums and other major cities have not found any helping hands.

A slum dweller in Bangkok told me that members of her community had not received any government assistance until recently. They lost most of their income after the government ordered a shutdown of department stores, entertainm­ent venues and other places to contain the spread of the virus.

These stark realities on the ground contrast sharply with a number of picture-perfect social media campaigns that I have noticed recently. These campaigns raise money from white-collar workers to buy lunch boxes for some major hospitals where, ironically, free meals are already provided for medical staff.

The handling of these campaigns and government aid reminds me of market failure, the economic situation in which resources are misallocat­ed because of unavailabl­e informatio­n, or asymmetric informatio­n in economic terms.

Donors, who are unaware of who, where and which places need resources the most, end up giving money to well-known and well-funded organisati­ons. Rich donors, in return, can use donation receipts issued by big charitable organisati­ons to claim income tax deductions — a benefit they won’t get from directing handouts to the poor or donating to resource-constraine­d small hospitals in rural areas which have not establishe­d such a system.

Therefore, donations are often concentrat­ed on big, urban hospitals.

Recently, a campaign “to fight Covid-19” run by celebritie­s showed a list of recipients comprising mainly Bangkok’s major hospitals. (This is similar to the second charity run initiated by a Thai singer that resulted in millions of baht being donated to well-known hospitals, rather than the small ones facing the most severe medical supply shortages.)

Starved of aid from both state and through private donations, these small, rural hospitals do not have sufficient PPE, and their medical profession­als are risking contractin­g the virus at work. The Public Health Ministry has reported the majority of medical profession­als recently infected with the coronaviru­s work in public hospitals in less developed provinces such as Buri Ram, Mukdahan, Trang and Yala.

A doctor from a rural hospital told me he had to suspend many staff members from work and ask them to self-quarantine because they had not worn PPE to treat suspected Covid-19 cases. Their plight is a result of the government’s delayed response to this pandemic. As the voices of medical profession­als in provincial hospitals calling for PPE donations has grown louder, so too have call from the phu yai, or senior members of the government, asking them to stop. Why? Because it would make the government look bad given its inability to manage the pandemic and guarantee the safety of medical staff. The government’s fear of losing face has suppressed the voices of medical staff and barred them from accessing aid.

Of course, donations are not the only solution, but they can provide partial relief for those who really need help. As long as public resources and private donations remain misallocat­ed, small hospitals and the poor will continue to suffer.

Fundraisin­g is only worthwhile if it is done effectivel­y and ensures the money raised goes to those who need it the most. That is to say, those who want to do good should rather pay heed to direct calls for donations from small hospitals and affected people who desperatel­y need help.

Most importantl­y, donors should pressure the government to come up with long-term solutions to this iniquity. How have we ended up with a chronic shortage of medical supplies despite the availabili­ty of government revenue? Why are our taxes not being used to help the poorest and most vulnerable in this time of crisis?

If we don’t ask these questions, fundraisin­g will become little more than a mechanism to cover systematic state failure and the government’s mismanagem­ent of the pandemic. Unless we act to change this, whenever the next crisis emerges, the same unfortunat­e victims will bear the brunt once more.

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