U Mya Paul, a 70-year-old man living in a village near Myingyan in central Myanmar, has felt the impact of the economic disruption caused by COVID-19, but he cannot wait for the pandemic to let up to allow him to get involved in community work again.
He used to be a rice farmer, but is no longer able to work due to the physical demands of being in the fields. Now U Mya Paul and his wife rely on their 25-year-old daughter who usually sells ice lollies in neighbouring villages, but this business has been hit by COVID-19.
"Due to village restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, my daughter has had to stop selling ice lollies. She can also roll cheroots, so she is doing this temporarily, but she only gets 500 to 1,000 kyats [US$0.35-0.70] a day,” said U Mya Paul.
"During the COVID-19 period, we had pawned our saved gold, and my daughter lost her regular income."
COVID-19 has not been the only problem. Bean and rice harvests failed due to reduced rainfall in the last three months. This has heaped additional pressure at a time when access to food and income has already been strained by the pandemic. Many people are now selling their belongings to get by.
"Most of the villagers, including us, have already sold their gold and jewelry. People couldn’t go to town easily in current situation to sell gold. So, villagers have to go to the two pawnbrokers in the village. But currently even those pawnbrokers are lacking money and can’t offer loans more because they already have so many pawned things," he said.
Rumours have been rife in Myanmar since the outbreak began, and U Mya Paul's community has not been spared. Many people have been spreading tales about how there has been lots of positive cases and even deaths in neighbouring villages.
"Mostly I overheard the people in our village talking about those rumours and they said they knew them from social media, neighbouring villages and relatives. Although I don’t believe these rumors, they can increase fear and anxiety in our surroundings," he said.
Although the current situation has made U Mya Paul feel depressed, he is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to support other older people and villagers through his role as leader of the local inclusive self-help group (ISHG), which was set up by HelpAge International. The group's activities in his village, which include home care and selling food at affordable prices, stopped temporarily due to the pandemic, but he cannot wait to get them started again to ensure the most at-risk people get support.
There are more than 200 ISHGs across Myanmar that are led by older people. They equip communities with the resources and skills to help those in need, providing a vital safety net. This model will be expanded to more villages throughout the country in the coming years.