The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

COVID-19 in Malaysia: impact on the poor

Serina Rahman

In Malaysia’s battle to contain COVID-19, a Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented to contain the spread of the virus by keeping most people at home. The MCO prevents travel of more than 10km from one’s residence. In the first three phases of the MCO (18 March-28 April 2020), only one member of the family was able to leave the house in an emergency or to buy groceries, food or medicine, with only one person allowed in a car at a time. In the following phases, these restrictions are being eased, with two people from the same family allowed to travel together, but distance restrictions remain in place with a few exceptions. Roadblocks have been set up along many major roads across the country, manned by police and the army, requiring travellers to explain one’s reasons for being on the road.

Only businesses or services deemed essential are allowed to remain open, such as banks, selected restaurants, pharmacies and supermarkets. Those that open run on a skeletal staff. The rest of the employees are often told to take no-pay leave. In some cases, jobs are simply terminated. Some industries and factories have also been forced to close for at least part of the MCO duration, if not throughout the entire period. Some companies have since totally closed down, leaving countless daily-paid and part-time workers suddenly unemployed. There is little avenue for recourse when they are terminated as a result of MCO restrictions.

There is little understanding of the impacts of these harsh, albeit necessary, restrictions on the poor. Most jobs held by Malaysia’s bottom 40 per cent (B40) require their physical presence and cannot be done from home. Roadside food stalls and pop-up morning markets, often a mainstay of the poorest population’s income, have been ordered shut. These shops also normally enable the poor to purchase food and other necessities at lower prices than in the supermarkets. Rural farmers and fishermen who continue to work find that there are no buyers, as factories, restaurants and markets are closed. Stopping work is not an option for the farmers and fishermen as they live hand-to-mouth on a daily basis. In times of pandemic, when perhaps others in their family have lost their jobs, theirs is the only hope that they might be able to scratch together some income with which to buy non-agricultural necessities such as diapers and milk powder.

In the deep interior and highlands, indigenous people would ordinarily be able to survive, as their existence is usually isolated and dependent on wild food sources. But many forests that have been a lifeline for generations have been logged and cleared for plantations, industry or development; both food sources and forest medicines that could cure illnesses are gone. At the same time, rubber and oil palm middlemen are no longer collecting supplies. These are the few trades that the indigenous people now depend on. Their limited ability to buy provisions is further reduced and financial aid that NGOs may have banked into their accounts is inaccessible as most are at least an hour and many roadblocks away from a bank.

While the urban poor are closer to banking facilities and convenience stores, they too suffer. Most are daily-paid workers in blue-collar jobs or menial labour; many have since lost jobs. Those still employed but dependent on public transportation suffer from restrictions imposed on buses and trains. Those without their own vehicles are stranded as taxis are beyond their limited budget. The urban poor do not have wild sources of food or space for home gardens. They are entirely dependent on store-bought sources and have no alternative when they run out of cash. While myriad permutations of government aid were given out before and during the pandemic, amounts and disbursements vary. A 2018 study by the Khazanah Research Institute reported that on average, B40 households only had RM76 (USD17) in post-expenses disposable income every month.

Amongst the poor, there is little understanding of health, sanitation or the severity of COVID-19. Many live in physically compact communities and for the urban poor, in tiny apartments. It may not be tolerable for them to stay indoors when there are often many generations inhabiting a small confined space. A lack of refrigeration in many homes means they are unable to purchase a week’s supply of food, even if they were able to afford to do so. Food delivery services are unlikely to be accessible or affordable. NGOs and social workers scrambling to get food and supplies to the poor, elderly, disabled and shelters, were initially advised to leave the provision of assistance to official government agencies. There was no clarity on where donated goods or aid would go, nor whether the established networks of the needy would get the supplies that they desperately need. Since then, the government has allowed NGOs to distribute food and provisions, but there are countless bureaucratic and impractical obstacles to overcome. On many occasions, government agencies have asked NGOs for aid and manpower.

While there were several measures announced to reduce the burden on the poor, most do not know how to access them, and many are not registered with the mechanisms through which aid is disbursed. Announcements that allay immediate pressures of public housing rental, loans and utilities are merely temporary. Once the MCO is lifted, multiple obligations will return with a vengeance, but jobs and income opportunities are not guaranteed. While it is vital to stop the spread of the virus, the lack of considered assistance to those on the edges means that many will suffer not just the possibility of contracting the virus, but increased difficulties in meeting the most basic of needs.

Serina Rahman is a Visiting Fellow in the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.