Poverty in the time of pandemic

THE six-month loan deferment will end on Sept 30. The moratorium on loan repayments was announced by the Prime Minister a week after the movement control order (MCO) was imposed on March 18.

It was meant to ease Malaysians of their financial commitments during the lockdown.

They have a choice not to opt for the deferment, but 93% took the offer.

At the same time, 95% of businesses enjoyed the benefit.

Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz revealed that the banking sector is reeling from RM1.06bil in losses every month during the six months, or RM6.4bil collectively during the entire period.

To its detractors, banks have been reaping profits over the years, with their financial performances improving year after year.

This is about giving back, sacrificing the bottom line for the people.

There are those who believe that the moratorium should end.

The banking system needs a breather.

It will be further burdened by economic uncertainties ahead.

There are calls to extend the moratorium.

The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) has a rather bleak outlook on the situation of their members if the moratorium is not extended for at least another three months.

The government on the other hand has decided on a more focused moratorium for the next three months.

It will be targeting those who are really in need.

Perhaps the idea is to help those who lost their jobs and workers who have had their pay cut as the result of Covid-19.

The debate will rage on. But the fact remains, the pandemic has had far-reaching consequences on our livelihood.

At this stage of the MCO, it is not so much about controlling the spread of the virus, it is more about mitigating the impact on the economy.

The world is still in turmoil. The global outlook is bleak.

Economists are looking at probably the worst global recession in modern times.

As always, the poor are the hardest hit.

A study recently placed that at least 100 million people will be pushed back to extreme poverty.

The number of people living under the international poverty line will significantly increase.

The work done the last 50 years to elevate the poor has largely gone down the drain.

Back home, life is slowly returning to normalcy, or so it seems. But do not be misled by the traffic jams on our roads, the spike in the number of domestic tourists or the crowd at eateries.

Battling unemployment is top priority. Despite the National Economic Recovery Plan (Penjana) or the wage subsidy programme (Prihatin) worth RM35bil and RM260bil respectively, the real economic impetus has yet to be outlined.

People are suffering, especially the B40 category. Poverty is real and urban poverty is even worse.

The lockdowns have impacted the livelihood of the poor more than the others. Among the lower income group, for every “Mak Cik Kiah”, there are probably 10 more less fortunate than her.

As the studies by two United Nations’ bodies recently indicated, women and children have been the most negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The studies conducted by Unicef and United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warrant serious attention.

“The Families on Edge” (FoE) report indicated that female-led households were especially hard-hit and vulnerable.

Many lost their source of income through cuts in working hours or through losing their jobs entirely. Many have little or no savings.

The study also pointed out that 32% of female heads of households are unemployed and 57% of female heads of households are not protected by either EPF or Socso.

The impact on children is more worrying.

Subsequently following the report on the studies, a Bahasa Malaysia newspaper interviewed a number of women head of households who said there were times they had to live on just eggs and instant noodles to survive.

Education, too, is affected during the lockdowns. Not every student owns a computer for home-based learning.

One of the suggestions was that Malaysia’s social protection system needed re-evaluation.

Poverty-stricken households, especially in the urban areas, need special attention. While the one-off financial help for the poor is welcomed, it will benefit them more if the government can assure sustainable help such as work and business opportunities in the long run.

Covid-19 is here to stay, at least for many months to come.

Yet, life must go on.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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