Covid-19 gives no quarter to urban poor

Poverty begets poverty and Malaysia could have arduous task in breaking the cycle with conditions exacerbated by Covid-19


IT SEEMS that no one is spared from the socio-economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, but for those in low-income urban households, the impact is certainly head-on.

The outbreak has pushed families in urban poor homes in Malaysia to greater hardship and fighting to survive.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in partnership with DM-Analytics Sdn Bhd, among the urban poor group, households headed by females are found to be “exceptionally vulnerable”.

Some 500 households in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur were surveyed and the results revealed that 25% of the heads of households (HoHs) are unemployed, compared to 5.3% at the national level.

The report, titled Families on the Edge, stated that unemployment rates are the worst in female-headed households at 32%. Yet, it could be a free fall for them as they lack social safety nets such as the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Social Security Organisation (Socso).

“The narrative at this point is they do not sound desperate yet, but are very worried for the next six months,” Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Research on Women and Gender director Prof Dr Noraida Endut, who is also a co-researcher in the study, told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

Many of the people surveyed are self-employed or working in informal sectors where access to labour market protection is still low.

DM Analytics MD Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid said the challenge moving forward is to ensure that those in informal sectors and the gig economy are protected in case they lose their income.

Muhammed, who is the lead author of the report, said the issue of social protection is nothing new, whereas EPF and Socso had acknowledged it and wanted to get these individuals protected, but challenged by low awareness.

Since January 2020, only 28,425 or 7% of gig economy workers out of 400,000 targeted workers are registered with Socso, according to the agency’s data.

EPF has introduced a retirement scheme for the self-employed called i-Saraan for registered members aged below 55 to encourage gig platform workers to save for the future.

From having less income or nothing at all during the Movement Control Order (MCO), the circumstances in the bottom 40% (B40) income households have led to a lower quality of food intake and the widening of the digital divide.

The Unicef-UNFPA report stated that poor families on average have consumed more eggs (+50%), rice (+40%) and instant noodles (+40%), while cutting back on snacks and sweets (-62%) and fruits (-40%).

On the education front, two out of 10 children in the families are not engaged in home-based online learning, the main delivery approach during the MCO, and their obstacles include no computer, no Internet and children cannot focus due to no learning space.

Universiti Utara Malaysia senior lecturer Muhammad Ridhuan Bos Abdullah said the vicious cycle of poverty gets worse during the pandemic as evident in the study.

“It is hard for them to provide nutritious food with low or no income. They could only afford the basics.

“Getting a good job with a better income is also difficult with a low education level. It is a vicious cycle,” Muhammad Ridhuan told TMR.

He said the lack of access to e-learning is not unique to the target group in the study as the issue is similar to those in other locations, particularly in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak.

One could recall a recent viral story whereby a university student in Sabah had to climb a tree to get a good Internet connection so that she could sit for her exams.

Muhammad Ridhuan said a concrete bottom-up policy is needed to reverse the vicious cycle and above all, access to education is of paramount importance.

He added that government agencies on the ground would be more effective to respond to the issue and deliver assistance to the group first-hand.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in a Facebook posting yesterday said there is room for improvement for the government and its agencies to ensure the wellbeing of the impacted group and include them into the mainstream of economic, education and social developments.

“I asked for a proactive step and holistic action plan to be expedited to help the PPR (Projek Perumahan Rakyat) residents to ensure this group to be more competitive.

“The reality is, I am proud that many Malaysians are diligent and work hard to build a better life,” Muhyiddin said after visiting PPR Desa Rejang in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday.

One encouraging finding in the report noted that B40% households have adopted the new normal and remain resilient.

The respondents have received various types of assistance during the MCO including Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (BPN), rent exemptions, the i-Lestari EPF programme and loan moratorium, but they prefer sustainable assistance rather than just one-off cash handouts like the BPN.

They hope for job opportunities, a space to do business and microloans for a start.

Malaysia has managed to flatten the curve of the Covid-19 infections and now the focus is for the financial situation and wellbeing of the people to be assessed continuously in at least the next six months.

The impact of the Covid-19 crisis has reverberated across financial, education, healthcare and wellbeing aspects.

“I have to borrow from ‘Along’ (loan shark) to pay for my mother’s medical bills around RM2,000. I don’t have anything to pawn anymore,” one respondent, 51, was quoted as saying in the report.

Poverty begets poverty and Malaysia could have an arduous task in breaking the cycle in the future, with conditions exacerbated by the current Covid-19 situation.

The clock is ticking before the poor keep slipping through the cracks.