Commentary: This pandemic has exposed our society for what it really is — fragile and unfair

Updated: Jul 17

Rashaad Ali


Malaysia is now into its third week of the movement control order and although early signs suggest our efforts are beginning to pay off, there is still a long road ahead. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered our lives in a manner reserved for a dystopia: a rapidly spreading illness, sudden deaths, panic buying, deserted cities. Our efforts at containment have been equally dramatic; a stay-home order, restricted movement, and a bizarre robotic orderliness at grocery stores.


The pandemic has also put the brakes on an already faltering economy. The machine of perpetual motion has come to a screeching halt; an economy dependent on consumption has been stripped of its ability to consume. While we twiddle our thumbs at home or struggle with an unstable internet connection throughout our Zoom meetings, many other Malaysians reliant on constant work to survive are now deprived of their source of income. Many contract workers, traders, hawkers and those in the service industry have lost their job and with it, their means of survival. This pandemic has exposed our society for what it really is — fragile and unfair, unable to prioritise even when it’s a matter of life and death.


Last week’s stimulus package, one of many similar initiatives around makes clear just how dire the situation is — even then it is clear the package is not close to being sufficient. One-off cash transfers to our poorest are not going to keep them ticking over for long, while SMEs are not getting enough support. Meanwhile, measures such as allowing the public to withdraw from their EPF compromise an already uncertain future. Aid will take time to disburse, which may not be enough for those who have lived paycheck to paycheck.


On the frontlines, healthcare workers and services are being overwhelmed. Insufficient equipment and supplies, especially outside the Klang Valley, may end up costing the lives of many. Yet somehow we are still behaving like this will all blow over soon, that normal service be resumed shortly. Putting aside what a post-Covid 19 world will even look like, recovery will take a significant amount of time. Who knows what will happen between now and then?


Our underbellies are unprotected — showing how many of us are just one disaster away from destitution. Now that disaster has finally arrived, it’s not the billionaires, the entrepreneurs or the digital marketing gurus who have come to save us. We’ve instead become reliant on an army of frontliners in public healthcare and essential services — jobs that many would disdain from outside of a global pandemic — to keep us safe and the engine running.


Applauding these brave individuals from the comfort of our homes might make for a heart-warming video on social media but it does nothing to protect these people keeping the enemy at bay. Witness last year’s episode when Foodpanda changed its pay scheme for their riders. Or the lack of a guaranteed pay rise or contract renewal for public medical officers. In times of economic hardship these groups are the first to pay the price due to no fault of their own, exacerbating any existing economic fragility. When it’s a public health crisis however, our dependencies are exposed. It’s not the CEOs that deliver your meals or groceries to your house, that pack food items or work the cashier at the supermarket, but the contract workers on low pay and no benefits.


A fight against Covid-19 is also a fight for social justice and equality of opportunity. This virus does not discriminate so why should we? Now more than ever must we do more to protect and expand our safety nets, to introduce a broader set of social measures that promote freedom and dignity for all. The idea of universal basic income for example merits serious consideration. Somehow, the idea of giving everyone a base amount of money to ensure their survival is outlandish and absurd, and yet during times of crisis it is precisely what we are doing. In times of calm that money helps give us the means to pursue a life worth living, free from the constraints of precarity. In times of emergency it serves as a fallback so our health and security are safeguarded.


Basic income will not alleviate poverty, but it will give us the tools to help us escape. It is about social justice, to give everyone a fighting chance in an unequal world. The lottery of birth should not decide whether someone lives or dies. Social welfare policies tend to be shelved based on affordability. But we fail to talk about affordability when the economy crashes and capitalist institutions queue up to receive their socialist bailout. Why is it that when it comes to us or the marginalised in society it becomes controversial, counterproductive and unaffordable?


This pandemic is a great example of the prisoner’s dilemma — anyone acting in self-interest will produce a sub-optimal outcome. Hoarding groceries deprives others of food. Flouting the stay-home order risks worsening the infection and adding stress to our healthcare system. In times of crisis we all need to do our part and pull together. The same should be true in periods of calm.


Perhaps you have suffered in this MCO, financially, mentally, physically, emotionally. Perhaps you are someone who has lost their job, or a business owner struggling to keep things afloat. Know that the reality you experience now is the life of many other Malaysians who have not been afforded the same opportunities as everyone else. If your health is good and your finances are well, count yourself lucky and think of those less fortunate. We tend to rely on them more than we know.


This article was originally published in The Malay Mail Online.

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