By Usa Khiewrord, Programme Adviser on Social Protection and Peter Morrison, Programme Adviser on Population Ageing, HelpAge International Asia Pacific Regional Office
About 12 million people in Thailand, almost 1 in 5, are aged 60 or over, more than half of them are women. And according to the 2017 Survey of Older Persons, 32% of those in their 80s indicated that their health was poor or very poor.
COVID-19 is non-discriminatory: anyone can be infected. However, not everybody is equally affected.
Older people and those with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are more likely to become severely ill, or even die, if infected.
But in spite of this risk, many older people in Thailand have limited access to preventive items and have difficulty following basic control measures because of their economic and living conditions. Many live in poverty or just above the poverty line, struggling to meet their basic needs and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their situation.
One of the main income sources of older Thais, particularly women and those of advanced age, is family support. This is often not enough, however, because their children struggle to meet the needs of their own immediate family, particularly as a result of reduced incomes caused by the pandemic.
Many older people, particularly those in their 60s, continue to work to support themselves and their families. Despite the limitations often associated with older age - such as declining physical ability and health conditions - many continue to be daily wage earners, including as informal workers in the agricultural sector. They face similar challenges to younger workers – low wages, no employment protection and limited savings - but negative societal attitudes towards older people can make the situation even worse. Dr. Kiatanantha Lounkaew, an economist from Thammasat University, warns that older people and informal workers are most at risk of losing their jobs due to their comparatively low education and skills, as well as difficulty in adapting to technology and the pace of change in society.
A third source of income is social protection, including pensions. The majority of older Thais (85%) benefit from a social pension scheme (Old Age Allowance - OAA) but it offers a very low benefit level. The 600 THB minimum payment represents about 25% of the national poverty line of 2,710 THB. It is one of the lowest in the world and lower than most of the social pensions in ASEAN countries.
No social protection measures have been put in place specifically for older people in Thailand in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the Government has introduced a range of measures to support people and businesses affected. Since older people are losing income as a result of COVID-19, the government needs to take steps to ensure that they are included in response measures.
The government should make it clear that affected older workers are also eligible for the 5,000 THB monthly benefit (for three months) that has been introduced to support informal workers. Since qualifying for the cash grant is based on a set of criteria and uses information in the existing government databases which often contain out-of-date information, exclusion resulting from errors on file has become a major challenge. In addition, many older people struggle to use the online application process because of their lack of IT skills or equipment. Additional application channels are needed.
The government has indicated that vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities, children, homeless people and older people will receive financial assistance. However, while there has been discussion and action to support other groups, there has been silence in relation to older people.
Beyond responding to the current crisis, the inadequate OAA benefits level should be reviewed and linked to a benchmark. The current benefits were introduced a decade ago and have not been adjusted to reflect increases in the cost of living. The legal basis governing the programmes should also be strengthened to transform the OAA into a national pillar of the right to income security in old age – which is especially during periods of shock such as the pandemic.
Providing financial assistance to older people would not be difficult to implement through the existing OAA programme. The monthly payment of the OAA could easily be topped-up by the government. 59 Asian countries have introduced new or adapted social protection programmes specifically for older people, including social pensions, as part of their response measures to the pandemic, for example Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India. So why has the Thai government failed to do so?