COVID-19 and the Most Vulnerable Among Us

May 28, 2020

Photo: Best Stock Vector/Shutterstock

Unlike health vulnerability, socioeconomic vulnerability is far more insidious, reaching deep into our homes (even with our best efforts to avoid it), and its treatment (government assistance and transfers) may not always lead to full recovery. Whilst almost everyone is vulnerable to the economic impacts of COVID-19, those who already faced the highest risk and degree of socioeconomic marginalization will be the most severely impacted – at-risk women and children, the elderly, adolescents, youth, persons with disabilities, indigenous populations, refugees, migrants, and minorities. For these families, lost income due to an outbreak can translate to spikes in poverty, missed meals and schooling for children, and reduced access to healthcare going far beyond COVID-19. The pandemic deprives them of livelihood opportunities that are already hard to come by and causes them to lose whatever gain they have made (small savings, a limited business clientele, children finally regularly attending school, etc.), which risks turning their dreams of escaping the poverty cycle to ashes. In the development context, inequalities will worsen, and those left behind will be left even further. How is this so?

First, the most vulnerable tends to lack access to effective communication to help prepare against the pandemic. While public messaging efforts have been amazingly efficient and informative from the very beginning of the crisis, but to groups of people whose formal language and ability to digest copious amounts of detail are limited, these messages may have failed to reach them in a meaningful and timely manner. Certain Orang Asli communities’ decision to retreat inwards from their settlements should not be seen as foolish; rather, it’s a desperate act of self-preservation. The danger that is not understood, they will first seek to avoid.

Second, the most vulnerable do not benefit from surveillance and early-warning systems and access to health services, especially concerning testing. Today, we see why this is particularly critical. It does not take much to predict that the crowded living conditions of migrant workers and the dispersed locations of their dwellings (shop houses and housing areas) will be a major source of vulnerability in the country’s containment efforts. But no one has any idea how to implement a surveillance and early warning system for the scattered clusters of migrant dwellings throughout the country. 

A photo of a man seen at the balcony of his flat unit in Selangor Mansion, Kuala Lumpur. The Selangor Mansion, along with Malaysan Mansion building and Menara City One were placed under enhanced movement control order (EMCO) after an increase of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 amongst residents. The buildings were known to be homes to many migrant workers in Malaysia. (Photo: Yusof Mat Isa/Malay Mail)

Third, the most vulnerable usually have low health baseline statistics, meaning they are relatively more prone to poor nutrition, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, alcoholism, and substance abuse. The economic burden of disease, including COVID-19 infections, is high to these households, particularly in absence of any form of medical insurance. Other reasons often overlooked as to why poor health is so detrimental to a vulnerable household: wages or job lost,  cost of going for check-ups, rehabilitation therapy, the opportunity cost of work when a healthy family member is forced to stay home to care for the ill or bedridden, and so on. 

Telco companies and broadband service providers in the country were seen giving out promotions and free data usage in light of the MCO to help Malaysians stay connected and ease the burden of high cost for data charges. (Photo: UNDP Malaysia)

Fourth, the most vulnerable are relatively more susceptible to psychological pressures due to life’s hardships. With COVID-19, those living in crowded spaces suffer a heightened sense of claustrophobia. There are new anxieties from being unable to connect or return to loved ones. The costs of keeping in touch (higher data and phone bills) must be balanced against the need to buy food and pay rent. Their nature of work hardly suits the notion of working from home; and the resulting feelings of utter helplessness especially if they are the sole breadwinner of the family, is certainly painful to bear. They are constantly worried if their savings can last the crisis or whether there’s even going to be a job or business to return to when the COVID-19 dust has settled. Their Ah Long (moneylender) loans must still be paid; debt freezes and moratoriums do not exist in their universe of informal credit. The lucky few who could keep working during the Movement Control Order worry about keeping safe from the virus, as masks and gloves are seldom provided, and social distancing at work is almost impossible.

Fifth, the future of most vulnerable, which lies in their children’s education, is now at risk because of COVID-19. The fate of children, especially those from vulnerable groups (i.e., refugees, undocumented, stateless, or even trafficked persons), is unknown. School closures have a wide range of adverse impacts on children and young people, including interrupted learning and foregone human interaction essential to their social and behavioral development. Children from at-risk families lose nutritious meals and the safety zone provided by schools. 

On 20 January 2020, the food supplementary programme was launched by the Malaysian Education Ministry where eligible students were given free meals before the begining of classes, as part of the government's efforts to help poor students who could not afford proper meals at home. (Photo: Bernama)

Among older children, school dropout rates could be higher post-COVID, as would social issues stemming from increased socialization (online or physical), as youngsters have more time on their hands. The online teaching and learning run by schools and colleges risk further sidelining students from poor households due to not having the necessary equipments and the inability of parents to support the process. COVID-19 showed how the digital divide can reinforce social inequalities between those with access to and using the new media (the digital “haves”) and those people without (“have-nots”).

The pandemic has reminded us, in the starkest way possible that inequalities within the society must not be allowed to persist. It was easy to ignore in the past - the most vulnerable is only tiny percentage of our population and the job of ensuring their well-being is a job for the government. Today COVID-19 showed more than ever before, that no man is an island. We are all interconnected in both the good and the not-so-good ways. Our economic and social interrelationships are too extensive and too complicated that, when all said and done, our society is only as strong as the weakest among us.