The Covid-19 pandemic revealed, quite overtly, the ugliness in the schism between the haves and the have-nots in Malaysia’s society. Many elites were desperately quick to take to social media to show their altruistic selves by posting images of them handing out goodies to the poor and down-trodden. But as time passed and the number of likes on each post reduced, altruistic fatigue set in, and the poor were left to their own devices.
Poverty in Malaysia is often a low hanging fruit for politicians to talk about. However, reality depicts a lack of action as Malaysians witnessed the number of shoplifting cases of basic food items to feed children rose drastically in recent months.
Despite having spent billions of taxpayer money on poverty reduction initiatives, up to 16.9% or 1.2 million households are still in relative poverty, absolute poverty stood at 5.6%, and hardcore poverty at 0.4%.
Not too long ago, when urged by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to review the guidelines on poverty, a top minister dismissed his finding, claiming that poverty was virtually eliminated in Malaysia.
According to Professor Alston, this claim is based on a statistical sleight of hand, which has nefarious consequences. He states that the use of a very low and highly unrealistic poverty line obscures the troubling reality that millions of families scrape by on very low incomes and there is significant hardship in urban as well as rural areas.
How poverty is articulated and then elucidated strongly affects what is actually done about it. Inaccurate assessments, unsympathetic attitudes, and flawed political indifference unvaryingly result in bad policies and practices that intensify the alienation of the poor.
A recent study conducted by Khazanah Research Institute suggests that over a million families are at risk of absolute poverty. This is mainly due to evolving basic necessities which squeezes their buying power while income growth in Malaysia has not kept pace since the turn of the century.
This lower income group is particularly vulnerable to shocks since it is likely that a majority of them work precarious jobs that offer little security, especially in times of economic crisis. Being poor is like trying to climb out of a pit while roped together with a family. For the first few levels the family climbs, there are no safety nets. A single shock — needing costly medicine, accident or death of the breadwinner — can throw everybody back into the pit.
According to a researcher at Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia(RRAAM), in poor and marginal communities where household income is below national levels, even buying menstrual hygiene products can be a ‘luxury item’ for some, especially if there is a sudden shock in income.
According to her, girls in these communities are likely to also lose out in their education because they do not attend school if they are unable to afford such products. “Especially amidst pandemic environment, there was an increase in the need for hygiene aid for vulnerable women, especially within low-income housing”.
One research paper has even revealed that the urban poor were forced to cut back spending on their children’s education by as much as 84%, based on a sample of 500 households with children in Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost flats.
This pandemic is widening social and economic divisions that also make the virus deadlier, a self-reinforcing cycle that experts warn could have consequences for years to come.
In Malaysia, with the virus is taking its toll, it is also deepening the consequences of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the losers of today’s polarized economy and labor market. Researchers have suggested that those in lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease.
They are also likelier to die from it. And, even for those who remain healthy, they are likelier to suffer loss of income or health care as a result of quarantines and other measures, potentially on a sweeping scale.
At the same time, inequality itself may be acting as a multiplier on the coronavirus’s spread and deadliness. Multiple research on influenza has found that in an epidemic, poverty and inequality can exacerbate rates of transmission and mortality.
These things are so interconnected, wrote Nicole A. Errett, a public health expert who co-directs a centre on extreme event resilience at the University of Washington. “Pre-existing social vulnerabilities only get worse following a disaster, and this is such a perfect example of that.”
When a health crisis hits entire segments of society, it can set off a cycle in which declining economic status leads to rising rates of chronic illness. That, in turn, further depresses productivity and raises health care costs, leading to more poverty, which leads to more disease.
The Malaysian government should take serious note of the underlying reality and not be consumed by misleading official statistics. It must do much more in the area of targeted welfare spending as well as improving the social protection system by broadening it to include the more vulnerable households. The government must adopt a comprehensive data transparency policy, enabling accountability.