Maureen Benedict, a retired teacher, has been involved in assisting vulnerable and marginalised communities in Ipoh, Perak for more than 50 years. During this current pandemic with the Movement Control Order (MCO) in place, she explains on how the poor have been disproportionately affected by the MCO and other restrictions in Malaysia.
Please tell us a little about the people who come to you for assistance
Mostly, I have women who come to see me for assistance in getting groceries for the families, financial assistance to help pay utility bills or their rents. Many of these women are daily wage earners – some wash dishes at stalls or restaurants, clean houses and etc. Some of these women are separated or have been abandoned by their husbands. Many of them have children and/or elderly family members to care for in their homes. I also have a few men who are daily wage earners coming for assistance. These men either deliver newspapers or cut grass/tend to gardens for families around the neighbourhood to earn a living.
How has the MCO affected these people?
For these daily wage earners, the MCO has been especially hard. For the last month since the MCO has been in place, these people have not been able to earn an income to feed their families. And the worse part, many of them do not know how to access the Bantuan Prihatin National (BPN) that the government has announced. Some of the women especially, can’t access this because the initial Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BRIM) was deposited into their husbands’ accounts and it seems the BPN has also been deposited into the husband’s accounts. In other cases, some of these daily wage earners do not have personal bank accounts. They want to visit the Social Services Department but are afraid because of the MCO that is in place and some of these offices are also closed.
I have cases where single mothers are not able to apply for the household assistance because they are not married. They only receive the assistance for single persons. The assistance for household is RM1600 compared to singles which is RM800. Basically, these women with children are denied the household assistance simply because they are not legally married. How does that even make sense especially during times of crises like this pandemic?
In addition to fears about feeding their families and paying their bills during this MCO, these daily wage earners are also facing heightened levels of anxiety and depression about their future earnings. Especially the women who work washing dishes or cleaning up restaurants, since they are not sure if the stalls or restaurant owners will hire them once the MCO is lifted.
Since schools are also closed during this time, it has placed additional burden of care on mothers and grandmothers. Young children at home constantly need attention, and with money being so scarce, these women are also getting quite frustrated at home, which raises the risk of abuse at home.
People seem to forget that the poor do not have the same resources that many middle-class people take for granted; for example, access to computers or the internet in their homes. The government has not given serious thought to these poor children and their access to education. These children are being left behind and will continue to fall through the cracks, which means the cycle of poverty will just go on.
And people also forget that women and young girls need hygiene products such as sanitary pads. I really do not understand why sanitary pads are so expensive – the government should ensure that the prices of sanitary pads are affordable for all since it is a basic necessity for women and young girls who are menstruating. In addition to providing food supplies, hygiene products are also essential. Another essential hygiene product that should be given out is adult diapers. Many people are taking care of elderly family members and some of them are either bedridden, suffer from incontinence, dementia, etc.
How have you been assisting these people?
After being part of this community for so long, we know of networks consisting of individuals and organisations that are willing to help. Many people have donated essential food stuff such as rice, milk, and others. Some have also pledged to provide a-meal-a-day for some of the families who are struggling – they provide a packet of vegetarian food each day for lunch and deliver these to those who are unable to move around. So, people are stepping up to help but I would like to see the government do more.
What do you think the government should be doing during this time of crisis?
The Bantuan Prihatin National (BPN) could have been better planned and implemented. I understand that the government had done this so quickly because the need of the people was so immediate.
However, the government has made so many assumptions that have left many of the poor behind. For example, they should have considered who was the person managing the household – and deposit the funds into the right person’s account. In the many cases that I have come across, it is the women who manage the household responsibilities but the money was transferred into their husband’s account instead. It seems they also used the old BRIM information for this.
Many of these poor women also found it hard to get accurate information on how to access this BPN assistance; because once again the government assumed that everyone has access to television and/or the internet – and don’t forget a number of these poor women are also illiterate.
This is where social services or Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat plays an important role. I believe that social services should have been considered as essential services and their officers should have been on ground helping people; the same as healthcare professionals.
I also think that those who are earning a monthly income, such as civil servants, should have been better vetted before automatically providing them with the BPN. There are so many people who earn monthly incomes who do not need the BPN, and yet still received it. This should have gone to those who really needed it such a daily wage earners and others involved in precarious work.
As a retired teacher, I am also upset that poor children are being left out of the current education mode because everything being delivered online. I want to see what the Ministry of Education has planned to mitigate the negative consequences for the children who could not access the online classes because they did not have access to computers, smartphones or the internet.
The government needs to keep the people informed on what the long-term recommendations for the poor and marginalised. One suggestion would be for the government to provide assistance to the poor, especially daily wage earners for the next 6 months – this will help them to get back on their feet and reduce their current anxiety and fear of the future.
This pandemic has clearly shown that the poor and marginalised are more likely to be negatively affected and suffer the most during crises. People need to understand that not all of us are experiencing this pandemic in the same manner. The government must be more pro-active in eradicating poverty and not just provide piecemeal solutions.