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Fire and Rescue personnel sanitise the area around apartment buildings in Malaysia during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: DPA

Covid-19 forces Malaysia’s poor to live on instant noodles, abandon school: UN study

  • The study of 500 families living in low-cost flats revealed a ‘shocking’ change in diet, while more than 40 per cent lacked equipment for online study
  • Women were particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic fallout, while government financial assistance was found to be of limited help
A new study by United Nations agencies has detailed the extent to which Covid-19 has hit poor families in Malaysia’s capital, forcing some to survive on instant noodles as their savings run out, while their children are unable to continue school because they have no access to computers or the internet for e-learning.

Of the 500 families living in low-cost flats that were interviewed by Unicef and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a quarter of household heads were unemployed, while close to a third had their working hours cut back and found it difficult to access health care. More than half were not covered by government social protection schemes.

The report, titled ‘Families on the Edge’, reveals how the pandemic has wreaked havoc on those in Malaysia’s ‘B40’ economic bracket – the bottom 40 per cent of households, by income – with women particularly vulnerable. Of the female heads of household interviewed, 32 per cent were unemployed.

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Some 40 per cent of the families surveyed ate more instant noodles than they had before Malaysia’s lockdown, during which many businesses were closed, while more than half ate more eggs.

“The change in diet was quite shocking,” said Muhammed Abdul Khalid, managing director of DM Analytics, the research institute which published the study. “Egg consumption skyrocketed as one of the cheapest proteins. Rice went up 40 per cent, as did noodles. Fruits, far less. We can already predict issues of malnutrition. One in three kids already face malnutrition, and with schools shuttered many children were not even able to access government-funded breakfasts.”

A man wearing a protective mask crosses a street in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters

Malnutrition is a long-standing issue among the nation’s urban poor in low-cost housing, with a 2018 Unicef study finding that 22 per cent of children below the age of five were stunted, 15 per cent were underweight, 20 per cent suffered from acute malnutrition while 23 per cent were overweight or obese.

Some households, Muhammed said, had tightened their belts to just one meal a day. “One respondent told me they relied on canned food, that fresh food was sold at prices for ‘pharaohs’. Another said they had to pawn belongings or borrow from loan sharks to cover medical bills.”

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The new study also found that 21 per cent of households were not engaged in e-learning. Forty-two per cent of all households reported having no equipment for online study, a figure that rose to 56 per cent among female-led households.

More than half the households found the government’s 1,600 ringgit (US$382) cash aid package – handed out over two months – to be useful, while other measures such as loan extensions or bank moratoriums were not found to be as relevant or helpful.

“Policy interventions … have helped, but there is a need for more sustained support targeting the women and children who need it most,” said Marcela Suazo, UNFPA’s Malaysia representative, pointing out that anti-Covid-19 measures could also lead to escalations in gender-based violence amid lockdowns, as well as mental health challenges.


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Stephen Barrett, Unicef Malaysia’s social policy chief, said the government had made efforts towards gender-sensitive policies, which had mitigated the worst of the pandemic’s economic fallout. “The question is what next, given that the coronavirus is a long-term crisis,” he said.

Farahanim Ahmed, a domestic violence activist and a resident of government-built low-cost housing, said the financial assistance from the government was helpful, but it did not fully cover the income shortfall suffered by Malaysians amid the pandemic.

“It’s been tough as not many have had regular jobs. Kids can’t access online schooling because not everyone has Wi-fi – the responsibility to get internet falls to the individual, it isn’t something the government gives us,” she said, adding that many women in the public housing estate where she lived could not work as they were food-stall owners, nannies or cleaners.

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“In one floor which has 27 units, there are maybe just four or five people with Wi-fi,” Farahanim said, adding that fewer still had computers or tablets and instead just used smartphones.

While car loans, school-bus fees or utilities could be covered by the aid package, she said what people really needed was help finding work. “The government has to help those of us who have lost our jobs, help us learn new skills or enter new fields of work.”

Yap Lay Sheng, senior advocacy and research officer at the Women’s Aid Organisation NGO, said women in Malaysia were at higher risk of unemployment.

Komuniti Tukang Jahit is a community-driven programme that teaches sewing skills to women from lower-income groups. Photo: Handout

“The pandemic has amplified the existing gender inequalities of our society. In the second quarter of 2020 after Malaysia’s lockdown, women’s unemployment rate stood at 5.5 per cent compared to 4.7 per cent for men,” she said.

“As tourism and hospitality, accommodation, health and education, and other services where women’s employment is concentrated recover slower than the rest of the economy, these gender gaps in unemployment will only widen.”

Community-driven programmes such as an initiative to teach women from low-income groups sewing skills have been forced to take on more dynamic measures when faced with the months-long lockdown.

“The team started out by making a few hundred batik face-masks to be distributed to communities in need for free. As it turns out, people from the corporate sector saw our face masks and decided to order them in bulk for their staff, said Komuniti Tukang Jahit (or Tailor Community) founder Yap Sue Yii. “Immediately the team worked on improving the masks on every level – functionality, fit, design, fabrics, durability. Even as a social enterprise we were still able to help the community by providing them jobs through the orders of these masks.”

Yap said the husbands of the women who worked with Komuniti Tukang Jahit had been losing their jobs since the pandemic. “But there are some even more unfortunate stories, such as some single mothers who lost their day jobs, which is difficult when they are the only ones to put food on the table.”