Many of us hold happy memories of sunny holidays on the Thai island of Phuket. But with the collapse of the tourism industry, many locals are now struggling to survive. Phuket resident Sara Al-Sayer tells Carolynne Dear how grass roots charity Help Phuket Today has been helping families put a meal on the table.
Volunteers put urgently needed food packs together.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has meant many people in Phuket have lost their livelihoods, especially those who worked in hospitality. Scores of workers were made redundant without pay.
“The effects of the pandemic were immediate. Tourists left and businesses could not cope with having staff on their books with no income.
“Help Phuket Today began when founder Kath Cumming read about a young Thai man who was so desperately hungry, he turned himself in at a local police station with an illegal drug in his possession so that he could access the food provided in prison.
“The situation was that dire, people were trying to get arrested just to get fed. Kath was horrified and started fundraising to try and put together food packs for those in need.
“Unfortunately for Phuket, the rise in coronavirus cases was so alarming that a strict lockdown was enforced. Suddenly, along with the hospitality industry, migrant and Thai construction workers no longer had a job. Many of them, already living on the poverty line in camps made of corrugated iron, were facing starvation.
Help Phuket Today founder Kath Cumming distributes urgently needed food to Phuket residents.
“The government was giving out allowances, but so many people fell through the cracks. It was obvious the situation was going to deteriorate quickly.
“Help Phuket Today was set-up to empower people in each district of the island to raise funds to buy food which could be made up into weekly packs for those in need. Members of the community would head out to locate the camps and then rally together to provide help.
“Lots of people have done such wonderful work within their districts to ensure as many people as possible can be fed. Restaurants have been cooking and feeding hundreds of people a day, gathering funds to help finance the operation. Residents would stop at the side of the road when they spotted tents in the forests and distribute food to the children who would come running out to collect supplies for their families.
“Help Phuket Today went to the most desperate of camps and saw heartbreaking scenes of abject poverty and desperation. But it also witnessed so much gratitude.
“The essence of our aid is the food packs that we put together. Each pack costs 250 Baht and contains rice, noodles, eggs, fish sauce and oil. If we see that there are babies and children, we try to provide some milk, nappies, soap and sanitary items for new mums.
“We have held donation drives and people have given clothes, toys and strollers. If anybody needs medical attention, we also try to help. Kath met a young boy with Thalassemia (a blood disorder) and he now has a very generous donor who has paid for many of his treatments. Wheelchairs have been provided for those with mobility issues and sturdy pushchairs for children with cerebral palsy.
The charity has been bringing relief to families all over Phuket.
“The core team at Help Phuket Today is just Kath and her friend, Claire. I have been helping with administration and the rest of the team is made up of wonderful volunteers who give their time to collect the food donated by supermarkets and deliver it to be packed and distributed. Others have offered to be a collection point for donations.
“Villa Market, our local supermarket, has been a massive support, offering us cost-price on many items in the food packs. Volunteers in other districts continued to look after their areas during lockdown and now work relatively autonomously.
“At the moment in Phuket, domestic tourism has restarted and some hotels have been able to reopen in the last couple of weeks. However, the hotel openings have been minimal and each property has seen a reduction in staff of 50% or more. And it’s the same story for restaurants and bars; they are operating with skeleton teams. The government funding scheme has helped provide some income, but it runs out after 90 days.
“We are always looking for volunteers. Lockdown has now ended on Phuket but so many have lost their jobs and are more desperate than ever.
“But more than anything, we are looking for donations. We have a Weeboon account (Weeboon is a Thai fundraising platform) that we have set up with the aim of raising 200,000 Baht to help feed another 800 families for a week.
"The situation is getting ever worse. Recently we’ve even seen children scrabbling through leaves on the ground for food.”
If you would like to donate to Help Phuket Today, please click here.