Over the past month, Malaysians have been using social media to call on those who have run out of food and essential items not to feel shy and to raise a white flag outside their homes to ask for help. Neighbors and small businesses in local areas have responded by donating food and essential items to those in distress. Some are now organizing donation campaigns to collect food for those in despair. Fishermen in Penang and farmers are donating fish and produce to poor families in need. A Sambal SOS app is now operating, showing people where food banks are located.
That is a distressing example of the hopelessness that many feel in a country that is reeling from political and economic problems and a deepening social malaise. After 18 months of squabbling that began with the fall in February 2020 of the hapless Pakatan Harapan coalition, Malaysia is suffering from dual crises that stem from the same source – a government that has ignored its duty to cope with the Covid-19 coronavirus while it uses extraordinary means to remain in power.
The economic and social consequences from harsh and ineffective restrictions in the attempt to curb the Covid-19 coronavirus have left the country with nearly 800,000 people affected in a population of 32 million, nearly 5,899 deaths and a caseload rising by 18 percent over the past two weeks while many nations are on a downward trend as the pace of vaccination widens.
The second crisis is political as contending factions continue to maneuver and squabble. After nearly 18 months of Perikatan Nasional government, starvation levels are rising, the coronavirus has killed nearly 5,800, 777,500 are officially unemployed, a figure that is believed to vastly underrepresent the total. According to the World Bank, gross domestic product contracted by 5.6 percent in 2020 and unemployment remained elevated at 4.8 percent as of Q4 2020. Although the Finance Ministry has set a 6 percent GDP target for 2021, the latest round of lockdowns makes that highly unlikely.
The rate of employed persons working fewer than 30 hours per week increased from 2.0 percent pre-pandemic to 5.3 percent in Q2 and 3.5 percent in Q4 2020. Self-employed and informal workers appear to have been hit hardest by the crisis due to reduced ability to work from home and limited coverage by social protection measures.
None of the contending groups are offering the nation any alternatives or solutions to the current predicament, which is now beginning to bite deeply. There is a growing feeling that the situation today is much worse than the Asian financial crisis of 1998/99.
Current economic statistics, which are lagging, don’t tell the real story. As the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO) has been extended to the middle of July, and is likely to be extended again, more businesses are closing permanently, more people are losing jobs and the incidence of poverty is rapidly rising. Large groups of people just don’t have enough food and essentials.
This is going on while enforcement agencies are dishing out harsh fines to those breaching restrictions while just trying to make a living and survive. The suicide rate is almost double of last year, with 468 suicides recorded until June 30.
At the same time, the elites are showing their disconnect. Politicians including cabinet ministers are being scorned for having durian parties while the wife of UMNO politician Nazri Aziz, is being mocked on social media for her selfies showing off her high life. Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, is facing widespread criticism for achieving nothing as Malaysia’s special envoy to the Middle East amid rantings about Allah and Covid-19.
The ability of Perikatan Nasional to govern is now under great scrutiny. Muhyiddin was mocked on social media for going to hospital to treat an infection. With no designated deputy prime minister within his cabinet, people are asking who is running the country.
Muhyiddin’s slow reaction to the rapid increase in cases has brought anger. The latest shutdown order called across the Klang Valley, which encompasses the Kuala Lumpur conurbation, has so far been ineffective in reducing the magnitude of the outbreak. In addition, Azmin Ali is under criticism as minister of international trade and industry over what industries he has designated as essential and non-essential. His decisions have led to layoffs, and hardships.
Meager Assistance Package
Muhyiddin’s latest Covid-19 relief announcement, the Pemulih (restoration) package, primarily relies on a loan moratorium to assist micro-enterprises and SMEs. In addition, individuals are allowed to tap into their own Employee Provident Fund (EPF) contributions. Cash payments to those in need are totally insufficient in providing assistance, and delayed.
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