Covid-19 has not abated and cities the world over are still doing their best to tame the virus. In addition to health and medical concerns, countries have to deal with the economic consequences brought about by the pandemic.
Without a doubt, the pandemic has brought to light lessons that governments can learn from towards developing better, safer and more sustainable urban areas.
The UN-Habitat has highlighted the need to address the underlying issues of inequality and exclusion in cities in order to effectively manage and contain Covid-19. It says that with the right policies, economic and social resources being invested to curb the pandemic can help build greener, more inclusive urban areas in the long run.
Since last year, Malaysia has launched a few social and economic stimulus packages to weather the storm.
“The profound challenge with any Covid-19 targeted packages and programmes remains the availability of existing data and recognition of vulnerable groups, as well as any associated underlying conditions, ” said Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat).
“For example, while the Prihatin Rakyat Stimulus Package made progressive steps to specifically mention urban poor and those living in People’s Housing Projects (PPR), the M40, B40 and SMEs, other vulnerable groups such as migrant workers, refugees and stateless populations were excluded in the initial analysis, ” she said in an email interview recently.
Immediate short-term stimulus programmes are essential, she noted, but one-off measures are band aids requiring longer-term policy responses to address the root causes of poverty.
For the 2.7 million low-income households in Malaysia earning less than RM4,360 a month – often with limited savings – job security and forced evictions are significant concerns, she added.
“Covid-19 disproportionately affects the poor, especially those living in informal settlements and with underlying conditions, exacerbating vulnerabilities while pushing them into further poverty.
“What these packages do offer are vital social safeguards for populations impacted to absorb some degree of shocks and stresses, hopefully sufficient to transition them to alternative or more sustainable livelihoods.
“They also offer an opportunity to reevaluate our definitions of vulnerability and look deeper into distinct pockets of affected communities. With each new stimulus package released, it provides the chance to widen the net and develop more tailored financial tools towards more inclusive economies and equitable provision of services, ” she said.
UN-Habitat’s recent report, Cities and Pandemics: Towards a More Just, Green and Healthy Future, presented an overview of the situation to date and outlined a range of measures that could deliver a sustainable recovery from the current crisis.
The report focused on four key priorities – rethinking the form and function of the city; addressing systemic poverty and inequality in cities; rebuilding a new normal urban economy; and clarifying urban legislation and governance arrangements.
Maimunah said that it is important to enhance community-based engagement and learning in handling the pandemic.
“Several engagement principles are fundamental to supporting communities in their effective address of Covid-19 response and recovery. At the core of these principles is the recognition that no two communities are the same.
“In our UN-Habitat Covid-19 Response Plan, we had estimated that over 1,430 cities in 210 countries have been affected and over 95% of total cases are in urban areas. This is of course particularly relevant for Malaysia, with more than 75% of its total population in urban areas.”
She said informal settlements and slums are especially vulnerable because of their overcrowding, lack of access to water, sanitation and formal health services, and food insecurity.
In addition, in PPR flats as well as living quarters of informal workers, known solutions to slow transmission of the virus like self-isolation, quarantine, physical distancing and contact tracing are also very hard to implement.
“As such, any community-based engagement and learning must consider the last mile and those most severely affected by Covid-19. As was highlighted in the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief, it was recognised that if we are unable to manage the virus in these deeply fragile and informal contexts, the global risk for continuous spread of the virus will remain, ” she emphasised.
At the same time, low health literacy and financial literacy among B40 households, coupled with limited access to information, also means any community-based engagement and learning needs to be properly tailored.
“Some vulnerable groups may not even know that valuable training is available, whether due to being unregistered with the Social Welfare Department or unable to navigate the administrative processes.
“Overall, no two communities are the same and similarly, every individual or household within that community is unique. The more we can do to understand the community and those who constitute that community through city profiling and analysis, the better community-based engagement will be to support them.
Is Malaysia on the right track to becoming more resilient?
“What we can be sure is that Covid-19 will be a test of societies, of governments, of communities, and of individuals and especially their respect for human rights across the spectrum.
“The road ahead for Malaysia will certainly not be easy. As a 2020 report by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) highlighted, real GDP contracted 6.9% relative to the 2020 baseline equivalent to RM102bil, leading to 2.4 million job losses and RM95bil in household income losses.”
Maimunah said in building back better from the pandemic, Malaysia needs to focus on regeneration work in three urban agglomerations – Greater Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Johor Baru – which collectively account for nearly half of the national urban population.
She shared that UN-Habitat is already working with Johor, Melaka, Penang and Selangor to help address issues of planning, housing and sustainable development.
“Addressing the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, along with urban and territorial planning beyond municipal and district boundaries, will also require the 12th Malaysia Plan to adopt an integrated and well-planned regional strategy.
“Bearing in mind and when taking Covid-19 as an example, some of the most prolific support to complement the Federal Government stimulus packages was led by state governments, federal territories, as well as the private sector and civil society themselves.
“Despite positive signs of progress, Malaysia needs to increase the alignment and coherence of policies among governments at the local, sub-national and national level, while creating platforms for government, civil society and private sector to share ideas, ” she said.