Commentary on the Book “Who Cares?: COVID-19 Social Protection Response in Southeast Asia”

I’d like to start by thanking Lia and SEA-Junction for inviting me to be a part of today’s panel discussion. I am really honoured to join this event and add my two cents to the dialogue on this seminal new book. It is an extremely thorough review, which covers the social protection response to COVID-19 in six countries as well as regionally. But since I don’t think I can cover a 350-page book in 10 minutes, I am just going to pick and choose a few key issues to highlight today.

Starting with Lia’s chapter on the regional situation, the analysis uses COVID-19 not only to highlight the massively unequal support that was provided during the pandemic but also uses it as a tool to bring up broader problems with inequality in South East Asia. It’s really a very fundamental critique of the way that societies are currently organized under the emerging neo-liberal hegemony in the region. I read it as a call to action not just for reforms of social protection systems but indeed a much more transformative agenda.

The chapter particularly explores what Lia refers to as “The Paradox of Social Protection in Southeast Asia”. That is to say the situation wherein the greatest share of public expenditure does not benefit the most disadvantaged in society but rather largely reinforces the existing inequalities. It acknowledges that indeed COVID-19 exacerbated these challenges, but also points out that the blatant differences in support for marginalized groups are a structural feature in South East Asia not the result of an exceptional event.

As an ILO representative, I really appreciate the heavy emphasis on informal sector workers within Lia’s chapter and several others. I was actually based in Myanmar during most of the COVID-19 pandemic and I repeatedly encountered a massive blindspot among donors and policymakers in respect to informal workers. They just could not seem to grasp that major investments in expanding government social security benefits during the pandemic were still going to leave behind 90% of the labour force. It simply did nothing for the domestic workers, fishers, street vendors, rickshaw drivers and sex workers who never had access to these benefits in the first place.

An important point made in the book is that any movement towards establishing more universal coverage by social protection in South East Asia needs to focus on the groups that have been most neglected, particularly workers in the informal sector. There has long been a narrative in the region which defines eligibility for social protection in terms of deservedness rather than universality. Workers have to prove their worth to society in order to earn access to benefits. But the reality is that the types of work judged to be undeserving are overwhelmingly done by women, migrants, ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. It is work that is simply under-valued not undeserving of equal support.

As I am a labour migration specialist by trade, I also wanted to talk briefly about the Thailand chapter and its analysis of the treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve been working on these issues for a long-time in Thailand but I too was unprepared for the sheer xenophobia of some of the policy responses adopted towards migrants. The Thailand chapter by khun Rapeepun and others talks about the bubble and seal policy, which was instituted in various economic sectors. He notes that this was essentially walling off migrant workers from the rest of Thai society, in some cases with actual barbed wire fences. Whatever happened inside the parameters of this containment was largely immaterial as long as the possibility of virus transmission was reduced outside of it. As noted in the chapter, there was widespread infection, lack of food, inadequate hygiene and limited access to healthcare services. And through all of this, we were told that this was actually a good practice that had been adopted from other countries. It was referred to as the “Singapore model” by the Thai authorities in some cases.

I would go so far as to say that the pandemic made visible the latent nationalism in Thailand in a way that has seldom been seen before. I think it’s long been an unspoken part of labour migration policy that migrants from neighboring countries are allowed to come here as workers but not fully as human beings. The willingness to simply lock migrants away from the rest of the Thai population, even when there was no clear evidence that they were the source of infection clusters, was quite revealing in that respect. It was really a policy based on the perceived disposability of migrant workers not public health data.

What the chapter also brings up is that this broader neglect of the welfare of migrants is clearly reflected in the lack of social protection provided to them. Again, it brings us back to this concept of who is deserving of coverage. Benefits are not distributed to ensure that those who are most in need receive them. Instead, eligibility is determined by nationality, immigration status and the economic importance ascribed to their work. As the chapter notes, a fundamental shift in understanding of social protection as being a basic human right is needed to ensure that coverage is extended to migrants and their families. Until migrants and other marginalized groups are included in Thailand’s definition of universality, social protection will remain a privilege of the few rather than an entitlement for all.

I would also like to talk briefly about the chapter on Singapore in the book. Stephanie’s piece notes a trend that we saw throughout the region during COVID-19, which was heavy reliance on authoritarian directives handed down by governments without consultation. With its one-party system, there is no doubt that Singapore was successful in many ways in managing the pandemic. The chapter notes that a citizenry highly accustomed to strict government regulations and paternalism was well-prepared for the lockdowns, mandates and directives that were issued during the pandemic. However, it also allowed for egregious human rights violations to go unchallenged, such as the restriction of 300,000 migrant workers to dormitories for two years. The chapter asks important questions that must be answered about whether authoritarian governance is acceptable if it leads to economic growth in South East Asia but not fair, inclusive and pluralistic societies.

Finally, the book has a strong emphasis in highlighting the role of civil society and community-based efforts in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. I think anyone who was here in South East Asia during that time recognized that there was a massive mobilization of communal, philanthropic and grassroots responses that filled major gaps in government initiatives. The irony here is that many governments in the region have been doing their utmost to cripple the vitality of civil society groups in recent years because they view them as a threat. As Lia concludes in her chapter, civil society space is crucial for a transformative approach to social protection to take place. These changes will not happen without the possibility for people to organize to demand greater social justice. Thank you!

Benjamin Harkins is ILO Technical Adviser for the Ship to Shore Rights South-East Asia programme and previously held a similar function for the Tripartite Action to Enhance the Contribution of Labour Migration to Growth and Development in ASEAN (TRIANGLE II project). He holds a BA in Cultural Studies from the New College of California and a MA in International Development Studies from Chulalongkorn University. He holds a BA in Cultural Studies from the New College of California and a MA in International Development Studies from Chulalongkorn University.