‘Rice ATMs’ in Vietnam dish out free food for poor during COVID-19 crisis

By Eric San Juan.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- Vietnamese entrepreneur Hoang Tuan Anh wants to satiate the hunger of thousands of his compatriots during the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 epidemic with a novel idea: automatic dispensers that give out free rice.

“A lot of people lost their job due to businesses closing. We want to help but I have small finances. I chose (to donate) rice so that everyone can eat. With rice ATMs working 24/7, I help sponsors not get sick (by catching the virus) when they give the rice,” Anh, the brain behind the project and owner of smart locking solutions firm PHG Lock, told EFE.

Although Vietnam has managed to largely contain the spread of COVID-19 – with just 265 cases reported so far and no deaths – social distancing measures imposed by the government earlier this month and a general economic slowdown have affected thousands of businesses and left millions of people without income.

Hoa, a 45-year old domestic help, is among those who have stopped going to work for one and a half months to avoid the risk of infection.

“This (rice ATM) is a big help because I don’t have any other source of income and I have two children to feed,” she told EFE, near one of the machines in Ho Chi Minh City, after taking out her quota of 1.5 kg of rice.

People in a disciplined queue of around 50 waited for their turn while maintaining a two-meter distance with the help of markings on the floor, although things were more disorderly towards the end of the line, with police and PHG Lock employees struggling to manage the crowd.

As the people move closer to the machine, organizers urge them to remove their hats and lower their masks so that a facial recognition system can ensure that this is their first collection for the day.

“We don’t want people to do business or use it more than one time per day. Some change their clothes and hats and try to get rice several times,” said Jolie Nguyen, one of the officials employed to prevent irregularities.

Most of the beneficiaries are people who have been hit the hardest by the social distancing measures.

Tuoi, a motorcycle-taxi driver, said his income had dropped by 70 percent and that he did not expect things to improve in the next few days.

When his turn came, Tuoi grabbed a plastic bag and held it under a small tube coming out of the machine’s wall that dispenses rice weighing 1.5 kg as per the configuration, enough for him to survive for five or six days.

The ATMs are among a string of aid measures carried out both by individuals and the government to help the most disadvantaged sections of society.

Apart from temporary tax exemptions and credit lines, the government has launched an aid package worth 62 trillion dong ($2.65 billion), to help around 20 million people. However, a large number of people remain outside the relief net or survive on meager incomes.

Nguyen Quang, a 55-year-old security guard who had turned up to collect free rice for the second time this month, said the ATMs were a “great idea for helping the poor” as even though he hadn’t lost his job during the epidemic, he earned just 2.2 million dong per month and struggled to get by.

The project’s creator estimated that within a week they had distributed around 45 tons of rice and helped around 120,000 people (30,000 families), through at least 10 dispensers installed in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and other cities.

“The number of machines (to be installed) will be based on how much sponsorship we get. We plan to make 100-1000 ATM rice minis that are easily movable on pick-up cars. With 100 ATMs, we can help a million people… at a very small cost,” Anh said. EFE-EPA


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