Fishermen waiting with their catch

Fishermen waiting with their catch for customers, with only 2 people turning up at the market today. (Photo: Serina Abdul Rahman)

COVID19 in Malaysia: Pandemic Impacts on the Poor


The raft of measures announced by the Malaysian government to restrict people’s movements will help to stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The measures, however, are having a huge impact on the country’s poor.

One man trying to sell off his motorbike to buy milk for his baby. A desperate mother caught for stealing Milo. Refugee shelters running low on stock. Growing anecdotal evidence from non-government organisations (NGOs) and social workers indicates that Malaysia’s measures to restrict movement to stem the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus is having a disproportionately adverse impact on the country’s poor.

On March 25, the government announced an extension of the Movement Control Order (MCO), and expectations are that it may be extended further. The MCO prevents travel of more than 10km from one’s home. Residents are only allowed to go out in an emergency or to buy groceries, food or medicine. Not more than one person is allowed in a car at a time. Only essential businesses or services – such as banks, selected restaurants, pharmacies and supermarkets – are allowed to remain open. These businesses are operated by skeletal staff, with the rest often told to take no-pay leave. Most jobs held by the poor require their physical presence and cannot be done from home. Some have seen their jobs terminated.

Roadside food stalls and pop-up morning markets, often a mainstay of the poorest population’s income, have been ordered shut. Some industries and factories have also been closed for the time being. Many in Malaysia’s bottom 40 per cent (B40) are daily-paid or part-time workers with little legal recourse should they be terminated as a result of MCO restrictions.

Empty roadside foodstalls, the mainstay of many of the B40. (Photo: Serina Abdul Rahman)

In rural areas, farmers and fishermen continue to work as they need the income to buy necessities that cannot be harvested from nature. But when they return with seafood and produce, there are no buyers. While local middlemen may pay them for their catch, the burden is then transferred to those middlemen as MCO restrictions prevent shoppers from reaching their markets. Most are turned back at police roadblocks set up to ensure that people stay home. With borders closed, Singaporeans can no longer frequent Johor markets for seafood and farm produce, and many vendors are feeling the pinch.

In the deep interior and highlands, indigenous people would ordinarily be able to survive, as their existence is usually isolated and dependent on wild food sources. But many forests that have been a lifeline for generations have been logged and cleared for plantations, industry or development. In addition, forest medicines that can be used to cure illnesses are also gone.

Thus far, indigenous communities have been better at keeping to the MCO restrictions as villagers have put up roadblocks to prevent outsiders from infecting them. But at the same time, rubber and oil palm middlemen are no longer collecting supplies. These are the few trades that many indigenous people depend on. This means that their already-limited ability to buy provisions has been further reduced.

While the urban poor are closer to banking facilities and convenience stores, they too are suffering. Most are daily-paid workers in blue-collar jobs or menial labour. Since the MCO, many have been let go. Those who remain and depend on public transportation are now increasingly burdened as additional restrictions have been imposed on buses and trains. Should they not have their own vehicles, they are stranded as taxis are beyond their limited budget.

While the rural and indigenous poor may still be able to depend on nature or home farms and gardens, the urban poor do not have such simple luxuries. They are entirely dependent on food purchased at the stores and have no alternative should they run out of cash. While there have been myriad permutations of government aid such as Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M), amounts and disbursements vary. It is not an effective safety net. A 2018 study by the Khazanah Research Institute reported that on average, B40 households only had RM76 in post-expenses disposable income every month. With MCO restrictions in place, they now have no opportunity to even eke out a living through roadside foodstalls – or to buy food at lower prices than those sold at permitted shops.

… the lack of considered assistance to those living on the fringes means that the poor are being hit by a double whammy – the higher possibility of contracting the disease and increased difficulties in meeting the most basic of needs.

Amongst the poor, there is little understanding of health, sanitation or the severity of Covid-19. There is now shareable information in local dialects and indigenous languages to explain the dangers of the virus and how to prevent infection. But in the first week of the MCO, many did not know that morning markets were closed and set up shop – only to be chased away in the ensuing confusion.

Many of the B40 are unable to purchase a week’s supply of food, either because they do not have the means or lack refrigeration. Hence they continue to head to the shops. They are likely to have no access to food delivery services, and even if they do, they cannot afford them.

Many live in physically compact communities and for the urban poor, in tiny apartments. It may not be a tolerable option for them to simply stay indoors when there are often many generations inhabiting a small confined space.

NGOs and social workers scrambling to get food and supplies to the poor, elderly, disabled and shelters have been advised to leave the provision of assistance to official government agencies. But there is no clarity on where donated goods or aid will go, nor whether the established networks of the needy will get the supplies that they desperately need.

While the government has announced several measures to reduce the burden on the poor, most do not know how to access these initiatives. Others do not have Employee Provident Fund (EPF) accounts. The recently announced RM250 billion stimulus package that serves to allay immediate pressures of public housing rental, loans and utilities is merely temporary. Once the MCO is lifted, multiple obligations will return with a vengeance, but jobs and income opportunities are not guaranteed. Small and informal businesses that the B40 depend on get little support.

While it is vital to stop the spread of the virus, the lack of considered assistance to those who live on the fringes means that they are being hit by a double whammy – the higher possibility of contracting the disease and increased difficulties in meeting the most basic of needs.


Serina Rahman is an Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lecturer at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.