Socioeconomic impact of MCO

THE movement-control order (MCO) is a necessity that Malaysians have to accept and adapt to, as the government wants to control the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has pleaded for people to stay put at home, considering the dangerous nature of the pandemic, and has also hinted at the possibility of the MCO being extended. The armed forces are being utilised to ensure stricter enforcement.

Malaysians are, by nature, obedient and law-abiding, and will give their utmost cooperation to the government.

To stop panic-buying, the government can introduce rationing to ensure there is enough food for all. This will also reduce the crowds at markets. There is a need to ensure cleanliness at wet markets and other public areas to curb infections, and local authorities must have at least a skeletal staff to do this.

Radio and TV programmes need to be more interesting and informative during the MCO period, to prevent boredom among the people. Telcos that usually rake in billions of ringgit in profit annually should provide free additional data and local calls to keep subscribers updated with the relevant information while the MCO is in place.

An important issue that troubles the people is the socioeconomic impact we will see post-MCO. Incomes and earnings have plummeted from the start of the year, and there will be losses for every citizen. The B40 and M40 groups will be the hardest hit, and monetary assistance is needed to alleviate their hardship. The government can only do so much in terms of aid for these groups, and it is time to consider some self-help schemes.

Employees Provident Fund (EPF) contributors from among the B40 and M40 should be allowed to withdraw RM1,000 to RM5,000 from their savings to tide them over given their loss in earnings over the next few months. Although EPF savings are regarded as retirement savings, there is no harm in allowing workers to withdraw part of their savings due to the present circumstances. These workers can make up for the withdrawals through increased contributions during better times.

Almost all workers are EPF contributors, and it is possibly the only savings that the B40 group has. EPF savings should be flexibly utilised, as and when necessary, and more so when people face an unprecedented hardship.

The government can dip into its reserves – RM400 billion according to some estimates – if the economy is depressed for a longer time.

Banks should be directed to offer loans to businesses, small and medium enterprises, and others affected by both the economic slowdown and MCO, in addition to deferring loans for a few months. Our banks are some of the biggest profit-makers, raking in billions of ringgit yearly on account of high interest rates and other fees, and can afford to pay back to the community as part of their corporate social responsibility.

Cooperatives, insurance firms and other associations can also provide loans to help their members. If left without any assistance, those affected, especially the B40, may turn to loan sharks and crime, and this could create various problems.

The government, on its part, can bring forward all Bantuan Sara Hidup instalments to be paid before June. Putrajaya needs to seriously consider setting up a natural disaster fund to cope with major incidents. Contributions to the fund can come during better times from Petronas, the windfall tax on palm oil, levy on foreign workers, and tourism. At least RM1 billion to RM2 billion should be saved each year during boom times, and the fund will snowball over time with compounded interest. This is a prudent necessity and should be started as soon as possible.

Even though ultimately, Malaysia and the rest of world will overcome the pandemic through vaccines or other cures, there is additional danger and risks for our country in the future. One such calamity could be the recurring smoke issue. A high air pollution index reading could bring the country to a standstill and do as much harm, if not more, than Covid-19 and the MCO. Malaysia needs to be prepared for this and more, as Asean is a region prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, droughts, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, typhoons and transboundary smoke.

The government can help out more during these tough times through the MySalam and other insurance schemes given the loss in earnings for a major portion of the workforce, and to aid people who cannot afford to go to private clinics or hospitals. The Great Eastern Insurance Company had to pay RM2 billion to Putrajaya for a regulatory waiver, and this became the basis of MySalam. The company should just pay the money to the government, and must not be allowed to dictate the terms of coverage through Great Eastern Takaful Bhd.

MySalam should be operated by the government through Bank Negara Malaysia, and the Peka scheme, too, should be combined with MySalam to make it more meaningful. The interest rate for the RM2 billion at 5% per annum will come to RM100 million. It has been reported that claims amounting to only RM10 million have been made since the scheme began due to stringent and unreasonable terms of coverage. Is this how MySalam helps the poor?

One of the common problems that senior citizens face is related to cataracts. MySalam has a list of 45 critical illnesses, but cataract and other ailments affecting senior citizens are not covered.

Why should the scheme be limited to those under 65? There should not be any age limit if it is a meaningful insurance to benefit senior citizens, who, in their younger days, helped in the nation-building process.

Another grievance concerns Socso. The government has made it compulsory for employees and employers to contribute to Socso, but conducts little supervision to ensure that the insured get their just dues when making claims. Only a few lucky ones get sufficient compensation or lifetime pension, whereas there are billions of ringgit in Socso’s coffers. What is the money for if not to compensate for injuries, disabilities, medical leave, death or unemployment?

Because of this, many affected workers go through third parties to boost their chances of getting compensation. Recently, Socso clarified that there is no need to go through third parties, but why are people still doing it? The government needs to ensure that justifiable claims are properly compensated, as it is mainly B40 workers who claim for injuries, medical leave, death benefits and others.

As if all these woes affecting the poor are not enough, the Selangor government has rolled back many of the populist measures introduced by the Pakatan Harapan government. Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari has unreasonably scaled back Peduli Sihat, the free water scheme and Mesra Usia Mas programmes, among others, that mainly benefit the poor. As the country’s richest and most developed state, Selangor can afford these incentives, and more, to help people through these difficult times. – March 26, 2020.

* V. Thomas reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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