Food support to returning migrants in Covid-19 quarantine centres: building on best practices for future emergencies

Following the closure of state-run quarantine facilities, the government and humanitarian partners met yesterday to discuss achievements and lessons learned regarding the provision of food assistance to returning migrant workers in COVID-19 quarantine centres across Laos.

With the end of the third wave of COVID-19 in the country, the Ministry of Health, together with the COVID-19 Task Force Committee, agreed to close all remaining COVID-19 quarantine centres on May 13, 2022. As infection rates spiked in neighbouring countries, quarantine centres played a vital role in controlling the spread of the pandemic in Laos.

With the onset of the pandemic, ensuring lockdowns, the closure of many factories and the loss of jobs where Lao citizens worked abroad, an estimated 360,000 migrant workers crossed the borders to return to their homes. This posed significant COVID-19 health risks to a country that had closed its borders in May 2020, as the loss of income and employment created a precarious situation for many workers and their families.

Following the closure of borders, the World Food Programme (WFP) received official requests from the Ministry of Health to support the food and nutrition needs of returning migrant labourers in Bokeo, Champassak, Khammuan, Luang Prabang, Saravan, Savannakhet, Xayaboury and Vientiane Provinces, as well as Vientiane. These quarantine centres were identified as key locations with major intakes of returnees from neighbouring countries.

Partnering with the Swiss Red Cross, the Lao Red Cross and World Vision International, WFP delivered 3 daily nutritious meals to all beneficiaries during their quarantine period, at a daily cost of LAK 50,000 per person.

The provision of daily meals in these centres ensured that returnees could remain in quarantine for their mandatory quarantine period, while helping to maintain their health and wellbeing and reducing the financial burden on them and their families.

During the 2 years of operation, WFP and cooperating partners provided food to a daily average of 1,260 beneficiaries, including pregnant women, children and young mothers in quarantine centres across nine provinces in Laos. During the peak of operations during July/August 2021, a monthly average of 4,800 migrant workers received daily nutritious meals. The partners were responsible for the distribution of meals in quarantine centres which were prepared daily by local restaurants. The preparation and distribution of meals from restaurants in the vicinity helped stimulate local markets, thereby supporting farmers and traders in the provinces.

WFP ensured technical assistance to the implementation partners on meal composition according to nutrition, food safety and quality guidelines and recommendations, as well as monitoring.

Meal distributions applied strict COVID-19 prevention and control measures, ensuring beneficiaries wore face masks, exercised hand hygiene and maintained physical distancing. In some quarantine centres, beneficiaries received their meals with the help of QR code scanning on mobile devices and sustainable food packaging materials for the meals were used where possible.

Between June 2020 and May 2022, WFP and partners distributed over 2.8 million nutritious meals supporting over 102,500 beneficiaries (50,500 women) at a cost of over USD 4.7 million. In addition to this, the Government of the Lao PDR also provided internal funding support to expanding quarantine centres, isolation centres and field hospitals as required. Kind donations from the Governments of Switzerland, France, Germany, the Republic of Korea and Luxembourg, as well as the World Health Organization, the Japan Association for WFP, World Vision Taiwan and multilateral contributions to WFP enabled meals to be provided, even in times of highest demand, coping with the fluctuating numbers of returnees in quarantine centres.

To identify lessons learned and best practices, with the aim of informing effective delivery of food support in future emergencies, a workshop was held involving health authorities and humanitarian partners in Vientiane today.

“The quarantine centre food assistance has been essential to keeping the Lao people safe throughout the pandemic, allowing vulnerable Lao migrants to return home to their families, while maintaining the country’s COVID-19 preventative measures.

The project was achievable through the strong coordination between all the project partners at central and provincial levels and would not have been possible without the continued financial support from the many donors. Today, we are meeting to review the best practices and identify opportunities for a cost effective and local approach to emergency food provisions, ready for the next disaster,” said Dr. Sisavath Soudthanilaxay, Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health’s Department of Communicable Disease Control.

Source: LAO News Agency