Pandemic sharpens inequality among the vulnerable in Asia

The COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened inequality among vulnerable communities in Asia. Workers in the informal economy, such as factory workers, home-based workers, sex workers, street vendors, transport workers, – many of whom are women – are experiencing job losses and income deprivation leading to hardships.

This was the central theme that emerged from the stories of the top ten finalists in the 2020-2021 Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award.  Across Asia, the finalists highlighted in their stories how the vulnerable had become more vulnerable as they borrowed money at high interest rates from loan sharks or fell victim to scams run by bogus job placement agencies.

In almost all these stories, governments were looked upon to provide support and relief which oftentimes was slow, intermittent, or simply not forthcoming.

The 2020-21 Award ceremony co-convened on 24 March 2021 by Asia Centre and Oxfam in Asia recognises the work of these journalists who wrote for an equitable Asia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its second year, the Award received over 100 nominations filed by journalists based in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The Award ceremony which was held both in-person and live-streamed over social media was attended by journalists, media academics, civil society actors, and others from Asia and beyond.

Lan Mercado, Oxfam in Asia, Regional Director, in her opening remarks, said that in Asia’s narrative the emphasis has always been on economic progress, yet the region is a place where 2/3 of the working poor live and eke out a living. COVID-19 has unfortunately escalated the problem, pushing people into extreme poverty and women have suffered disproportionately. Hence, she said, the work of journalists highlighting issues of inequality is very important.

Dr. Robin Ramcharan, Executive Director, Asia Centre, in his opening remark, spoke about the quality of journalism. He noted that journalism standards have dropped over the years in part due to user generated content over social media. There is also increased distrust of the mainstream media due to sensationalism and politicisation. Initiatives such as Journalism for an Equitable Asia Award can encourage the writing of fact-based articles which in turn can help improve and reinforce quality journalism.

This year, the top 3 prize winners and top 10 journalists received cash awards and certificates.  All ten finalists received a US $1,000 base award, while the top three prize winners received an additional US $1,000 (1st Prize), $US 750 (2nd Prize), and $US 500 (3rd Prize) respectively.

Krixia Subingsubing and Mariejo S. Ramos from the Philippines jointly clinched the first prize. Co-authors, their article, “Lockdown-weary jeepney sector faces Dec. 31 deadline” highlights the struggle of Jeepney drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic amidst pressures to modernise their vehicles. In a two-part story, the authors narrate the financial hardships Jeepney drivers face and highlight calls for the government to do more in terms of subsidies and job security.

The second prize went to Pakistani journalist, Umar Bacha, for his article “Braving hostile terrains and attitudes, the women at the heart of KP’s Covid-19 battle”. In the piece, he captures the plight of Lady Health Workers (LHW) who did not receive salaries regularly but were still called upon to provide health care support in the rural mountainous area during the pandemic. The article urges the government to regularise LHWs, pay them a pension and not to deploy them for non-health care activities.

Vietnamese journalists, Pham Thi Thu Ngan and Pham Thi Song Mai, secured the third prize for their series of articles, “Shirts faded from pandemic and invisible labour”. These articles capture how COVID-19 affected factory jobs and employment for young people resulting in income loss and hardship. These stories also expose the underbelly of “job brokers” who cheat and scam people for money in the false hope of finding them employment.

In closing, Dr. James Gomez, Regional Director of Asia Centre, congratulated the finalists and praised all journalists who highlight the issue of inequality in their work. He said that as countries turn to vaccination, the inequitable distribution of vaccines amidst its scarcity will become an issue. Dr. Gomez said the work of journalists reporting on this issue would be important in the months ahead.

Notes to editors: 

Details about the completed award for 2020-21 can be found here:

Website article: https://bit.ly/3f9TqoU

YouTube video: https://bit.ly/2NPy5Wu

Bios of the 10 finalists: https://bit.ly/3qLWaLd

Event page: http://bit.ly/3tppbOw

For further information please contact Asia Centre at contact@asiacentre.org or call Tel: (Office) +66-(0)2-129-3773; (Mobile) +66-(0)95-805-8558

About Oxfam

Oxfam is a global movement of people working together to build a future where everybody enjoys equal rights and has enough to eat every day. Together with our partners, we are working in more than 90 countries to build this positive future now. We save, protect and rebuild lives in times of crisis, support lasting solutions to poverty, tackle inequality, and stand up together to break down the barriers that keep people poor.

About Asia Centre

Asia Centre is a not-for-profit social enterprise that aims to create social impact in the region. The Centre focuses on addressing and highlighting issues related to the impact of fake news and hate speech on freedom of expression in the region. From 8 September to 10 September 2021, Asia Centre will host its 6th international conference, “COVID-19 in Asia: Communication, Nationalism and Technology” in Bangkok, Thailand.