Myanmar had one of the lowest confirmed COVID-19 caseloads in the world in mid-2020 and was one of the few developing countries not projected to go into economic recession. However, macroeconomic projections are likely to be a poor guide to individual and household welfare in a fast-moving crisis that has involved disruption to an unusually wide range of sectors and livelihoods. To explore the impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on household poverty and coping strategies, as well as maternal food insecurity experiences, this study used a telephone survey conducted in June and July 2020 covering 2,017 mothers of nutritionally vulnerable young children in urban Yangon and rural villages of Myanmar’s Dry Zone.
Stratifying results by location, livelihoods, and asset-levels, and using retrospective questions on pre-COVID-19 incomes and various COVID-19 impacts, we find that the vast majority of households have been adversely affected from loss of income and employment. Over threequarters cite income/job losses as the main impact of COVID-19 – median incomes declined by one third and $1.90/day income-based poverty rose by around 27 percentage points between January and June 2020. Falling into poverty was most strongly associated with loss of employment (including migrant employment), but also with recent childbirth. The poor commonly coped with income losses through taking loans/credit, while better-off households drew down on savings and reduced non-food expenditures. Self-reported food insecurity experiences were much more common in the urban sample than in the rural sample, even though income-based and assetbased poverty were more prevalent in rural areas. In urban areas, around one quarter of respondents were worried about food quantities and quality, and around 10 percent stated that there were times when they had run out of food or gone hungry. Respondents who stated that their household had lost income or experienced food supply problems due to COVID-19 were more likely to report a variety of different food insecurity experiences.
These results raise the concern that the welfare impacts of the COVID-19 crisis are much more serious and widespread than macroeconomic projections would suggest. Loss of employment and casual labor are major drivers of increasing poverty. Consequently, economic recovery strategies must emphasize job creation to revitalize damaged livelihoods. However, a strengthened social protection strategy should also be a critical component of economic recovery to prevent adversely affected households from falling into poverty traps and to avert the worst forms of food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly among households with pregnant women and young children. The recent second wave of COVID-19 infections in Myanmar from mid-August onwards makes the expansion of social protection even more imperative.