- By Nur Afrina (Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin)
The initial pandemic outbreak in Malaysia took its toll back in January 2019. Ever since the first cases were detected and reported, the pandemic had resulted in grievous repercussions on the nation from different aspects. The most prominent element Malaysian citizens face from both lower and medium income classes is undoubtedly the financial crisis. During the early stages, Malaysia was among the countries that triumphantly managed to curb the Covid-19 viruses from further transmitting with reduced daily cases. Malaysia achieved a temporary victory after the first "Movement Control Order (MCO)" was commenced. However, the success did not last long until mid-2020 as the newly reported cases have elevated drastically. Since then, there have been many MCOs being re-imposed with tighter restrictions by the government, which have immensely impacted Malaysia's economic security.
The pandemic had certainly sparked the escalation in the poverty rate globally as well as in Malaysia. According to the Merdeka Centre, an estimated amount of 24 million Malaysians will inevitably fall into poverty due to the pandemic. The Economic Affairs Minister, Mustapa Mohamed, stressed that B40 households are the most affected community in the society as they are from low-income families. He also announced that the government would establish a "Poverty Circle" to help eradicate pandemic poverty by constructing a strategic system. It is crystal clear that families from the B40 classes are drowning in complete poverty because of the absence of a fixed source of income. To make it worse, many families had lost their breadwinners to Covid-19, which made their future obscure. Vulnerable communities such as senior citizens and residents in urban areas are also at significant risk of livelihood.
Pandemic poverty: On unemployment and suicide rate
Malaysians were dismissed from their permanent jobs, and over thirty thousand businesses have been forced to shut down since March 2020. The numbers have kept spiraling ever since, as reported by Malaysiakini. There is ninety percent of the pioneer and small enterprises were rippled by the pandemic. These businesses were unable to sustain themselves, which eventually contributed to the increase in unemployment statistics. The unemployment rate continues to spike 4.5 percent up until May 2021. It is observantly transparent as most breadwinners from the M40 class are in jeopardy due to loss of jobs and fixed income. Thus, the probability of the M40 households to convert into the B40 category increases up to more than six hundred thousand households. The durability state of the people becomes severe as their social protection is inadequate.
As if the rising unemployment numbers due to the prolonged Movement Control Order (MCO) are not already alarming and a massive challenge to be dealt with, this issue is further worsened when it causes an unpleasant impact on the people’s mental health in Malaysia. The effect of losing a job on an individual's mental health should not be taken lightly, as it could result in a person feeling insecure and anxious about their future - which could lead to depression. It is a struggle to job hunt, especially during these challenging times where movements across states are restricted. Since this pandemic and the MCO is still ongoing in Malaysia, one could expect the number of individuals suffering from mental health to increase drastically.
Reports have stated that Befrienders, a suicide hotline in Malaysia, has received an upsurge of calls seeking help. Between April and September 2020, the government's psychosocial hotline received 37,709 calls, half of which were connected to mental anguish exacerbated by the pandemic and the MCO. The highest percentage of depression and anxieties reported was 59.2 percent and 55.1 percent, respectively, between August and September 2020. In addition, a total of 468 suicides have been recorded in just the first five months of 2021, mainly caused by emotional and financial pressure. These data show that the mental health of Malaysians is deteriorating over time.
To help the struggling citizens during the lockdown, the Malaysian government has introduced an RM150 billion aid package, which provides cash aid and assistance for unemployed people. Besides that, Malaysians can also withdraw money up to RM5,000 from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), and RM500 million will be given to one million unemployed people. Even though the government has provided numerous aid packages, it seems insufficient for those barely making ends meet. Some of the aid provided by the government is unable to reach the needy and impoverished, especially for those who reside in rural areas with difficult accessibility. Pandemic poverty in Malaysia is acutely dire that the citizens have to raise a "white flag" outside of their homes, which symbolizes a silent call for aid and assistance. Hence, the white flag campaign is a brilliant initiative that the citizens inaugurated to provide assistance for the struggling citizens. This campaign has garnered considerable attention that celebrities, and even supermarkets like 99 Speedmart, have provided foods and necessities to low-income families. We can also see some food banks being set up in certain places for those who needed it the most.
The Malaysian government has devised a long-term plan to help the unemployed people and protect our economy from hitting rock bottom. Close collaboration through the "Poverty Circle" plan with the Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around Malaysia is highly encouraged as they are closer to the citizens. The partnership will be a catalyst for the government to acquire in-depth information on the current situation of the underprivileged. Hence, the process of assisting livelihood improvisation for the people will operate smoothly. Countries like New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, and more have retained cases and fatalities at a minimum level. Malaysia could harness fresh ideas from the efficient initiatives made by other countries that had successfully ended the Covid-19 chains while preserving the welfare of their people. The matter of prescribing necessities is also included in the government's long-term plan. Unfortunately, although the aid packages provided by the government may help lift the burden of the poor and the unemployed people, it is only a band-aid solution. It does not guarantee the prospects of employment and income once the MCO ends.
To sum up, pandemic poverty is an actual obstacle in Malaysia, which has disrupted the welfare of the citizens in the country. Day by day, we can see posts on social media about people asking for help or donations. The citizens should be comprehended as the main priority as they are in agony, crying out for help from all over the country. The people’s concerns should be mitigated with immediate response by prescribing solutions and contingency plans to the existing unemployment and financial problems. It is also highly anticipated if the government can fast forward the "Poverty Circle" progress. The reassurance of the people's internal security must be acquired to better the country and the economic security.