- By Nur Amani Syakirah and Nur Afrina (University of Sultan Zainal Abidin UNiSZA)
The initial pandemic outbreak in Malaysia began in early 2020 when the first case was reported on 4 February 2020. The pandemic caused Malaysian citizens from lower (B40) and medium-income classes (M40) to face a financial crisis. In the early stages of the pandemic, Malaysia was among the countries that successfully managed to curb the Covid-19 viruses from further transmitting and achieved a temporary victory after the first "Movement Control Order (MCO)". However, the success did not last long until September 2020 as the newly reported cases have elevated gradually due to the mass gathering during the election in Sabah. Since then, there have been many lockdowns with tighter restrictions, which further impacted Malaysia's economy.
Unemployment and suicide rate on the rise
The pandemic had undoubtedly increased the poverty rate globally as well as in Malaysia. The Merdeka Centre estimated around 2.4 million Malaysians would fall into the poverty category. On 17 June 2021, the Economic Affairs Minister, YB Dato’ Sri Mustapa Mohamed, stressed that B40 households are the most affected community in the society as they are from the low-income group. He also announced that the government would establish the "Poverty Circle" initiative, whereby representatives from the government, private sector, and civil society organisations would discuss suitable strategies to reduce pandemic poverty.
During the pandemic, many Malaysians lost their jobs. According to the news reports, over thirty thousand small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been forced to shut down since March 2020. The Department of Statistics Malaysia reported that most SMEs' contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had reduced by 7.3 per cent. These businesses were unable to sustain and contributed to the increasing number of unemployment. The unemployment rate continues to climb up to 4.5 per cent in May 2021. Besides the B40, breadwinners from the M40 class are also losing jobs. Thus, a possibility of more than six hundred thousand households of M40 to be downgraded to the B40 category as reported by the media. In addition, vulnerable communities, particularly senior citizens and residents in urban areas, are also at significant risk of livelihood difficulties. The people’s social protection is clearly inadequate to survive during the pandemic. For instance, they cannot pay their overdue bills, house rentals, medical necessities and even shop for food and other essentials.
The pandemic has also impacted the public’s mental health in Malaysia. The effect of losing a job should not be taken lightly, as it could make a person feels insecure and worried about their future, hence, leading to depression. Psychologists argued that work represents an identity. It gives a purpose and allows social interactions with other people. Therefore, losing a job may affect people’s mental health. Since this pandemic and the MCO is still ongoing in Malaysia, finding a new job is a challenge, which may cause more individuals to suffer from depression and mental health.
Befrienders, a suicide hotline in Malaysia, has received an upsurge of calls seeking help and emotional support. Befrienders KL received 10,412 calls between March and May in 2021, which is more than 50 per cent increase compared to 6,858 calls of the same period last year. Moreover, the Health Director-General, Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah stated that the Psychosocial Support Helpline recorded 122,328 calls from 1 January 2021 to 18 June 2021. According to a study conducted by the University of Malaya, between August and September 2020, the highest percentage of depression reported was 59.2 per cent while cases of anxieties were recorded at 55.1 per cent. In addition, 468 suicides have been reported in the first half of 2021. The record shows a significant increase as compared to the total of 609 suicides in 2019 and 631 suicides in 2020, as reported by the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP). The RMP highlighted that suicides cases were caused mainly by family problems, emotional stress, and financial pressure. Nevertheless, Malaysia is not alone in this issue. According to the United Nations experts, there is a possibility that the Covid-19 pandemic might turn into a mental health crisis globally, with many people suffering from severe psychological stress.
Initiatives by the Government
On 28 June 2021, the Malaysian government introduced a RM150 billion aid package to help the struggling citizens during the lockdown, which provides cash aid and assistance for unemployed people. Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Mahiaddin Yassin stated that the Economic Recovery Package, or Pemulih, aimed to reduce the financial burden on the affected households and businesses and enhance the vaccination efforts in the country. Malaysians were able to withdraw up to RM5,000 from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), and RM500 million will be given to one million unemployed people. Besides that, individual borrowers, which refers to any single company, public corporations, firms, or association of persons, will also be granted a six-month bank loan moratorium starting from 7 July onwards.
Pandemic poverty in Malaysia is getting worse and has forced many Malaysians to raise a "white flag" which symbolises a call for aid and assistance. Even though the government has provided numerous aid packages, it seems insufficient for those barely making ends meet. Hence, the white flag campaign was a brilliant initiative that unites the people to assist those struggling for food. This campaign has garnered massive attention among the public as several celebrities and hypermarkets, provided food and necessities to those in need. Food banks were also available in places of worship. The compassion and willingness of Malaysians to help each other have truly shown the value of altruism in the society.
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. 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 organisations (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 for the people will be done smoothly. Therefore, Malaysia could also use the solutions made by other countries that had successfully reduced the Covid-19 chains while preserving the welfare of their people.
To sum up, pandemic poverty is a challenge in Malaysia. It has disrupted the welfare of many Malaysians. The people’s concerns must be addressed with immediate response by having practical solutions and contingency plans to the existing unemployment and financial problems. On the bright side, this pandemic has indeed brought Malaysians together, which is evident when the people willingly help those struggling by giving donations or offering jobs to those in need. This side of Malaysians should be complimented and should also set as an example for future generations. Upon the shifting of position from the Minister of Defence to the 9th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob had proposed an offer to the opposition side to join the National Recovery Council (NRC) committee toward prioritizing on the pandemic recovery over politics in Malaysia.