The coronavirus COVID-19 crisis highlighted the long-term cracks – mental health of the people as well as lower income households and individuals which the government must address decisively to display the social and psychological resilience of the country, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in Parliament on Monday (6 April).
During the Resilience Budget’s speech, Ms Ong raised her concern that the funding and resources to mental healthcare and support amid COVID-19 pandemic have falling outside from the government allocated budget.
She suggested government to be the ‘pilot’ in offering free mental healthcare consultation for Singaporeans to incentivise help-seeking of mental health and channel more resources to organisations whose provide free counselling services such as Samaritans of Singapore, AWARE, and Silver Ribbon.
She said, “We must enable quality mental healthcare and subsidise fees for individuals whose mental health has suffered due to Covid-19, especially for lower-income households.”
Referring the news of German State Minister’s suicide over COVI-19 related stress, Ms Ong concerned the frontlines that strained during this intense period and urged government to provide the necessary mental healthcare support for all civil servants and healthcare workers.
She proposed the government to appoint relevant experts to involve in the multi-ministry COVID-19 task force to advise on mental health implications and commensurate policy interventions.
“This proposal has been raised by mental health experts themselves,” said Ms Ong, noting that government should work out a budget based on the public health experts’ recommendations on mental health to prevent further public health crisis.
Aware of the COVID-19 crisis that triggered the fears of people, she suggested government to publisize the practical advice on maintaining mental well-being and publish the guidance on supporting employee’s mental health for all employers.
As Minister for Social and Family Development (MSF) Desmond Lee announced on Sunday (5 Apr) to set up National Care hotline to help those who need emotional support during COVID-19 crisis, Ms Ong relieved that government has responding to her call on initiating a national mental hotline for mental support while hoping it can be continue implementing after the crisis.
Resilience Budget is not enough to bail out a low-income household that loses its income, especially for those with several dependents
In light of COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Ong said the lower-income families and individuals will suffer more than most of the people in making ends meet during this unprecedented period.
She noted, “In 2018, about 300,000 residents earned less than $2,000 per month. Household expenses for the average Singaporean household in the lowest income quintile have consistently exceeded income for the past ten years.”
“Unfortunately, the Resilience Budget as announced last week is not enough to bail out a low-income household that loses its income, especially for those with several dependents,” she added.
As such, she urged the government to provide “more assistance, more quickly, and for longer” to support the low income families in coping their precarious situation.
While Ms Ong welcomed the extended period of government support assistance, she pointed out the application process for the assistance is taking time and worried that it will “reach breaking point at crunch time” if there are more applications coming in.
She said the physical crowding to apply for the government funds have to reduce as the country could not afford another risk of COVID-19 clusters in social service offices.
“Given these priorities, we may have to trade off the luxury of deep-diving every case to test its deservedness. For applicants, this also cuts out the need to apply in-person and prove their suffering over and over again,” she said.
Thus, she suggested Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to reduce the amount of evidence that needed to provide by applicants to prove their difficult situation and make it as unconditional help.
Besides, MSF officers could be authorised to investigate end-users whom they suspect are abusing the system.
She also recommended practicing the automatic disbursement for Temporary Relief Fund (TRF) and COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) by distributing the funds based on the proxy indicators such as changes in CPF contributions or mechanisms such as self-declarations.
As the current beneficiary of ComCare assistance is not eligible to apply for TRF and CSG, Ms Ong suggested government to extend the Fund and Grant for them as well.
To alleviate the financial burden of residents, Ms Ong proposed to provide immediate relief in the form of HDB rental waivers until the end of year and further rebates to Service and Conservancy Charges (S&CC).
Touching on the support giving to Food and Beverage (F&B) Businesses, Ms Ong urged that a national response such as government’s collaboration with F&B sector and food delivery companies can be implemented to provide food to the needy families, rather than a fragmented approach.
“This has a double advantage: it ensures food security for our lower income households and frees up household liquidity, whilst supporting our local F&B businesses and self-employed delivery riders,” she said.
Vulnerability of rental flat communities for COVID-19 infections risk
On top of the COVID-19 dormitory cluster, Ms Ong raised her concern on the vulnerability of rental flat communities for COVID-19 infections risk, saying that there is evidence of crowded housing related with the risk of acquiring respiratory infectious disease.
She added, “There are at least 1,425 households where 5 persons or more are crammed into a 1-room flat. Many more live in 2-room flats. Such crowded living conditions create a ripe environment for infection which in turn could spread to the wider community.”
Hence, she suggested improving the home environment with features such as ventilated corridors, rooms to enable distancing, and separate elevators serving different floors to protect the public health.
“We must rehome our most vulnerable in conducive spaces. We may not be able to do that for all during this crisis, but we can do it in time for the next, and our people will be more resilient for it,” she said.