By Arnaz M. Khairul
THERE was a blinding disconnect somewhere in senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s announcement of the government directive for all non-governmental organisations to immediately halt efforts in supplying aid to the poor, disabled, elderly, unemployed, homeless and vulnerable section of society.
The NGOs are to hand over the supplies to the Welfare Department, after which the aid will be distributed by the National Voluteer Corps (RELA) personnel or the armed forces, the only two agencies allowed to do so apart from the former.
We are half-way through what will for now be a month-long enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO), a period under which non-essential services and manufacturing facilities have been shut, as the vast majority of citizens are told to #StayAtHome to stem the Covid 19 pandemic.
We know for sure more than a few small businesses have began laying of staff, with some staff of one “high-flying” conglomerate informing us that their last day will be tomorrow (March 31).
Those will form a growing new segment of the distressed – the newly unemployed.
But amidst the joy of the so-called “Makcik Kiah” announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as a key beneficiary of the RM25 billion relief package announced as a stimulus to keep the economy afloat and address the financial concerns of a vast array of society.
Muhyiddin did gain much applause from his supporters, but that his nicely crafted presentation would swiftly lose its shiny wrapping and come undone was inevitable.
But that is not what we wish to uncover here. There are more urgent, life-saving matters which need to be highlighted.
Since the start of the Covid 19 MCO on March 18, many NGOs and opposition leaders had sounded the alarm over the urgency to look into the ensuing impact on the vulnerable section of society, namely the poor, homeless, disabled, elderly, unemployed and those in all those categories with terminal illnesses.
But everything the government has thus far announced, has somewhat given away their total ignorance towards this segment.
From the EPF withdrawals of RM500 per month for 12 months for those who seek that option, which is for the working class, to the tax rebates for those who contribute to the government’s Covid 19 Fund, inevitably only for the wealthy and then the moratorium on loan repayments with financial institutions, which again gives mainly the working class some cashflow relief.
Then came the big announcement of cash handouts which would cover a wider scope of society, including Muhyiddin’s famed Makcik Kiah, who expected to gain in excess of RM4,200, until it was pointed out to her it would be a one-off and split over two months, and she had to have no source of income during this period to receive it, leaving her possibly with less than wide smile.
Even Makcik Kiah, despite her connections to Muhyiddin, would have to apply for those handouts via a mechanism requiring clarification, and she would receive the money at the end of April.
Makcik Kiah is privileged. Unlike Madam Yap Lee Choo of Kampung Tunku, who is 85 and lives with her immobile 91-year old husband without any children to depend on after losing their only son in a mountaineering accident three years ago.
Madam Yap has been getting through this lockdown through contributions from neighbours and church members. And yesterday received a timely aid package of essentials from Kampung Tunku assemblywoman Lim Yi Wei under the Bantuan Harapan scheme. (watch the video above for Madam Yap’s comments)
At the Sri Aman Apartments, a low-cost housing block within the otherwise affluent Kampung Tunku neighbourhood, there were six Malay families under the vulnerable category registered with the ADUN’s Service Centre database. (also in the video above) These families, single mothers and a single elderly woman, did not offer much comment on their situation, but were visibly distressed by the situation.
What we need to understand is that in such a situation, the daily wage earners such as those small traders and hawkers have likely not earned a single sen since March 18. What about the unemployed and those who earn less than a B40 income? The homeless?
What about those with disabilities and those who fall under all of the categories above and have terminal illnesses to add to their woes? For these people, Covid 19 is merely an additional cause for worry. If aid does not arrive, they might die of hunger or lack of life-saving medicine.
Alright, this government, comprising mainly the political elites, may have underestimated the gravity of the situation but they did not have to worry.
The groundwork to address this very situation had already been done by NGOs and the community service centres of many assemblymen or MPs and the urgent aid was already being delivered to this very segment of society.
For example, Yi Wei explains, the groundwork to swiftly identify the needy and vulnerable in her constituency was made easier through earlier community engagement, namely with religious agencies and residents’ associations.
When the MCO came into force, her team swiftly mobilised Bantuan Harapan, through which they swiftly located and identified those who fell into the vulnerable category. (Watch the video above)
“Firstly, the stimulus package is good, it seems to cover a lot of bases. But what we are most concerned about is the speed of the aid being disbursed to people. People have been asking me about how to apply and we don’t have any clarification to that,” she said.
“The second part is those who are highly vulnerable – senior citizens with reduced mobility, the disabled and the B40. They need aid now. Its not about filling up forms.
“When we did our Bantuan Harapan, we very much streamlined the process. We just asked for a copy of their MyKads so that we had their full names and their details and any OKU cards or medical records, if necessary. We just simplified it and did a phone interview. It is about getting things done now,” said Yi Wei.
Yi Wei also made a call for the government to rescind the directive for NGOs to stop directly distributing aid to the needy yesterday, (video below) in which she reiterated the need for these efforts to be in place to ensured urgent aid reaches the vulnerable swiftly, with the groundwork and familiarity with the field of work in favour of the NGOs. Instead, she advised the government to come up with guidelines on precautions and standard operating procedures to ensure these aid operations do not cause the spread of Covid 19.
Those carrying out these aid operations are already well aware of the safety precautions and do practice them.
The Kampung Tunku ADUN’s Service Centre were making their second round of aid delivery around their constituency yesterday, when Ismail Sabri made his announcement, ringing echoes of frustration across the country as NGOs and those engaged in aid work pleaded for the government to rationalise.
In Kuching, businessman and activist Iswardi Morni vented his frustrations on his nightly Facebook live session, calling for the government to come to their senses.
“I urge the government to think about the implications of this directive. Here we have NGOs all over Sarawak which have been mobilised to provide aid to the vulnerable. With this directive, we have had to stop and those people are being left helpless. I have been receiving distress calls, but we can’t do anything with this new rule in place,” he said.
“The Welfare Department here, we know them and they are seriously understaffed. In fact, I know all their staff, which are just a few. The NGOs are mobilising manpower sufficient to carry out aid work and all of us are volunteers. We do not get paid and we are not asking for payment.
“We do take the necessary precautions when doing this work, like wearing the face masks, gloves and disposing off them properly. If the government wants to set guidelines for us to follow, we welcome that. But let us continue providing aid. Don’t put the poor people at risk.”
Setiawangsa MP Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad echoed that in his statement to Sinar Harian today in which he called for the government to engage with NGOs as partners and not look to undertake this battle on their own.
He called on the government to look at the gravity of the situation and realise that they need to work hand-in-hand with the NGOs.
“Each NGO has their expertise, which the government can use in their battle against Covid 19. For example, the foreign workers are a potentially high risk segment and they usually shy away from cooperating with the authorities. The NGOs usually engage with them and look into their welfare. This is one example where the government would need an NGO to tackle one segment of society,” said Nik Nazmi.
And then there is the economic factor.
Mobilising RELA and the army to engage in charity work, would eat up additional budgets and put a new set of people at risk, while allowing the NGOs to continue by operating within set guidelines would not only be more efficient, it would not cost the government anything, as the NGOs likely have their funding sourced through their own means.
Thus, unless there is an urgent need to punish the poor, then the whole concept of this stop-aid directive seems rather ridiculous.