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Reality Check: How are Malaysians coping with the pandemic?

As the coronavirus rapidly sweeps across Malaysia, more and more families are finding it hard to cope with the day-to-day struggles of living amidst a pandemic.

A report released by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) revealed that 20% of M40 households previously earning between RM4,850 and RM10,959 have now moved to the B40 income bracket[1].

Those from the T20 are also impacted – 12.8% of this group has shifted to the M40. 

It is evident that the economic downturn arising from Covid-19 has pushed many from the middle and high-income groups into a precarious position. Now, these families face unprecedented hurdles to stay afloat. 

Dealing with Unemployment and Job Loss

Another study conducted by DOSM found that the unemployment rate in Malaysia climbed to 4.8% in June 2021, involving 768,700 persons[2]. With more businesses folding and downsizing to save costs, families are struggling to make ends meet.

One particular group that has been hit hardest are single mothers — their unemployment rate stands at 16%, roughly three times higher than the national average[3].

Previously, I generated income for my family by baking from home. But now that there are no celebrations and events, I’ve lost my only source of income. It’s been very stressful, we don’t even have proper food. With all this, I still have to think of how to pay my monthly utilities and bills. – Single mother with four kids, 43, B40 

Zulaikha Rahim, a 34-year-old mother of one, previously considered herself as a member of the M40 whilst working as a journalist. Everything changed in a blink of an eye when she was laid off by the company, along with other staff. She is now relying on freelance income from any translation or writing jobs she can get her hands on. Zulaikha is one among the many Malaysians who survives on informal work to make a living[4].

I signed up as a delivery driver to make enough to eat. Sometimes my brother pays for my food. – Personal trainer, late 20s, M40

A similar predicament befell Mohd Rizal Amran, a 41-year-old single father of five kids. Since the pandemic, Rizal has been working multiple odd jobs such as grass-cutting and wiring to support his family[5]. In such desperation, it is no surprise that people would be willing to take up any opportunity presented to them, even if they came with meagre salaries.

Source: The Star

Even for those who were fortunate to have kept their jobs, some of them had to contribute or support other family members who had been impacted economically. The financial constraints have inevitably contributed to increased stress within the family. 

I’ve become the only person with stable income in my family of five. Our spending has dramatically been cut down to only essentials – it’s a complete lifestyle change. – Venture analyst, mid 20s, M40 

Depleting Finances: Losing Shelter And Lacking Food  

Although there has been considerable assistance from the government, more than 50% of households are still unable to meet essential expenses. According to UNICEF Families on the Edge Report[3], roughly 6 out of 10 people are unable to purchase enough food for their families, and a staggering 1 out of 2 people are unable to fulfil mortgage, rent and utility payments. 

The numbers are just growing by the day as many families who live in small rooms are now being kicked out to the streets as they have an outstanding rental amount awaiting. For many months, they begged and borrowed from relatives and friends. But now with the prolonged MCO, everyone’s funds are depleted.– Ananti Rajasingam, CEO of Yayasan Chow Kit[6] 

Source: Ananti Raj | Facebook

Many B40 families are forced to reduce food intake in order to save costs with most meals consisting of mostly carbohydrates such as rice and instant noodles in order to stay fuller, for longer[7]

As long as there is rice then it’s mostly a safe zone. Anything can go with rice, and even just having plain rice is more acceptable than having nothing else. Mostly just stock up on rice and eggs. – Teaching apprentice, Mid 20s, B40

Despite these hardships, families are striving to make the best out of their circumstances. Valuable skills are being learned and one of the greatest takeaways from these hard circumstances is to be grateful for the little things in life. 

I have to budget properly every month on what to spend. For this to be effective, I have to clearly distinguish between needs and wants and forgo all the instant gratification. I now realize that I don’t need to spend on the unnecessary. Going through this has taught me about contentment and gratefulness. Executive, mid 20s, M40

Fears Continue to Loom Large

On August 11, a 7-minute video showing overcrowding at PPV Rumah Prihatin sparked an outcry among citizens for better vigilance and compliance towards SOP and physical distancing. The clip instantly went viral and has now reached over 5 million views. Many netizens, fearful of further outbreaks, expressed their frustrations and disappointment over the matter[8]

PPV overcrowding at KLCC a few weeks prior. Source: Twitter

The man behind the camera, known as Sir Shakib, then posted another video. Visibly upset and in tears, he urged authorities to do something and play their role in ensuring the safety of the rakyat. 

People are dying. Fathers, mothers, children – all these people are dying. Use your powers. – Sir Shakib

With hospitals on the verge of collapse due to the unceasing surge of COVID cases, families are becoming more anxious about contracting the virus themselves. In a recent survey conducted by research firm IPSOS, up to two-thirds of Malaysian respondents listed Covid-19 as their top concern, surpassing political and financial corruption which came in second at 51%[9].

When I was infected, time in my life literally felt like a pause. Because I didn’t know how bad this virus could be in my body. I was physically tired all the time. – Executive, mid 20s, M40 

One deeply worrying issue for low-income households is the treatment costs they would have to bear if their families are infected. A general survey by The Malaysian Reserve found the treatment cost per day for a non-critical Covid-19 case at Sunway Medical Centre in Petaling Jaya is between RM1,500 and RM2,500, with a deposit of RM10,000 to RM20,000. For moderate cases, the charge is RM4,000 per day with a RM15,000 deposit. For seriously ill patients who require ICU facilities, the charge is between RM6,000 and RM8,000 a day with a deposit of RM30,000[10].

For families who are barely scraping by and scarcely have enough for their day-to-day needs, contracting COVID could just be the worst thing that can happen. 

It was pretty tough recovering from COVID-19. All my family members except my father had contracted the virus so we had to quarantine in our own rooms. Since none of us were allowed out of the house, we had to depend on ordering food via Grab which entailed higher food expenses than usual. We were lucky to also have our family and friends who helped us buy medical supplies and necessities to get through the 2 weeks. – Student, early 20s, M40

Source: The Star

A Growing Mental Health Crisis

With the ongoing financial distress and family issues arising from prolonged isolation, many individuals continue to suffer mentally and emotionally. Lockdown fatigue, loss of loved ones, new Covid-19 variants and bleak economic prospects certainly have taken a toll on all Malaysians. In addition to restrictions on social activities, the stresses of work-from-home and university aggravate the emotional deadweight of the pandemic. 

I work in a startup and WFH (work from home) has blurred the lines of work and life. I have to really make a conscious effort to stay away from my computer so I don’t think of work. I spend time with my family a lot knowing my parents are aging and that makes time spent with them really precious.Venture analyst, mid 20s, M40 

Within just the first five months of 2021, the police recorded a shocking amount of 468 suicide cases in Malaysia. This translates to three suicide deaths daily on average, nearly double the number in 2020[11]. The grim reality is that these numbers are likely to rise from MCO 3.0 onwards as cases continue to rise, indicating a long road to recovery ahead. 

Source: UNICEF

During the first 2 MCOs, 266 suicides were reported from March 18 to October 21. 25% of these cases were associated with debts, followed by family problems (24%) and marriage problems (23%)[12]. Loss of one’s usual coping mechanisms such as socialising, group sports and travelling are also found to exacerbate mental health issues. 

I find that the lack of social interaction with the outside world tends to take a toll on my mental health, so I try to make time for virtual catch ups with friends or take a walk in the evening around the neighbourhood. – Student, early 20s, M40

It is evident that many families are physically and mentally exhausted over the past year. In spite of this, many are actively seeking healthier ways to cope with their emotions. From fostering closer familial friendships to reconnecting with peers online, any form of support one can find is valuable to get through the day. 

I try doing bonding and meaningful activities with my kids at home such as cleaning the house, praying and learning new things. – Stateless person, late 20s, B40

How can you help? 

During times of upheaval and distress, it is evermore important for us to be empathic and cognisant of the struggles faced by the people around us. Start with those closest to you – your friends, neighbours, colleagues and even your family. Let’s all try our best to support each other as we navigate yet another phase of pandemic uncertainty. 

We should also try our best to extend help where we can. Visit Wiki Impact’s #BenderaPutih page for a list of organisations and individuals you can support or find help.

Explore Our Sources:

  1. Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM). (2021). The Household Income Estimates and Incidence of Poverty Report, Malaysia, 2020. Link
  2. Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM). (2021). Key Statistics of Labour Force in Malaysia, June 2021. Link
  3. UNICEF. (2021). Families on The Edge, Issue 4. Link
  4. Bernama. (2021). Mental health issues growing more serious. Link
  5. The Star. (2021). Single father takes on odd jobs to support five kids. Link
  6. Yayasan Chow Kit. (2021). Save our homes, save our hopes! Link
  7. The Straits Times. (2021). Viral video of ‘hugging queue’ for COVID-19 in Malaysia sparks outcry. Link
  8. Free Malaysia Today. (2021). Malaysians going hungry, but govt out of touch, says MP. Link
  9. Malaymail. (2021). Survey: Fear of Covid-19 in Malaysia returns to peak levels as daily cases surge. Link
  10. The Malaysian Reserve. (2021). No price hike for Covid-19 treatment at private hospitals. Link
  11. Code Blue. (2021). Malaysia Records Three Daily Suicides This Year Up To May. Link
  12. The Star (2021). Raising awareness to curb suicide cases. Link

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