The COVID-19 outbreak has relentlessly exposed some of Singapore’s main structural weaknesses in inequality and social protection, the former Chief Economist of GIC, Yeoh Lam Keong said today (16 April) on Facebook.
Mr Yeoh in his Facebook highlighted the country’s three structural weaknesses which he says has been uncovered amid the ongoing pandemic, with the first weakness being the inadequate regular income support and public housing needs of the absolute poor.
“The core Workfare Income Supplement and Silver Support Scheme payouts remain pathetic, causing great hardship only exacerbated by the lockdown,” Mr Yeoh remarked, indicating how low-income workers overcrowded in rental flats presents another danger of a spike in cases of the virus.
As reported on 9 April, the low-income urban poor are being hit hardest by the pandemic as they tend to have precarious jobs, fragile safety support, and insufficient wage. Some low wage workers have to take on high-risk jobs such as delivering food to quarantined individuals’ houses because their income was cut amid the outbreak.
Meanwhile, the second structural weakness is “the well documented virulent epidemic–within a pandemic–in our ill-housed foreign workers”, according to Mr Yeoh.
The poor living conditions in migrant workers’ dormitory was put into the spotlight after two dormitories—the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol and Westlite Toh Guan—were gazetted as isolation areas by the Government on 5 April following a spike in COVID-19 cases there. News reports disclosed the unsanitary and crowded living conditions in the two dormitories, where kitchens are infested with cockroaches and toilets are overflowing.
Mr Yeoh then highlighted that the third weakness is the Government’s inadequate investment in hospitals that puts the medical system in danger, especially in this current climate.
“Our relatively inadequate investment in hospitals over the decade that has left us with around 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 population compared to 4.7 in the OECD, 13.1 in Japan, 12.3 in Korea, 6.9 in Taiwan and 5.4 in HK,” he noted. “This leaves our hospital system in much higher danger of being overwhelmed.”
On that note, Mr Yeoh said he hopes that the Government will put more effort into strengthen the country’s weak social protection by helping the absolute poor, providing more decent housing for poor families and foreign workers, and improving the healthcare infrastructure.
“As Churchill famously said, we should never let a good crisis go to waste. After this terrible pandemic is over, let’s not just return to the sad state of affairs before the crisis began. That would be an even greater social tragedy,” he said.
How will the COVID-19 crisis affect Singaporeans’ capacity to meet basic needs?
In his post, Mr Yeoh also included a link to an article which focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis towards Singaporeans’ capacity in meeting basic needs by a blog called Minimum Income Standard (MIS).
MIS was established by a group of researchers who aimed to investigate the required income households to reach a ‘minimum’ standard of living in Singapore.
According to the article by MIS, food insecurity has become an issue as the outbreak induced patterns in the purchase, consumption, availability, and prices of food across the country.
“Depending on when and where one shops, supermarkets sometimes run out of lower-priced staples, and only ‘healthier’, pricier options are left on the shelves,” the article read.
Lower-income families have to make trips to shops daily as they do not have the means to stock up on food supplies, and now that schools have switched to home-based learning, this only escalated time pressures because children require more supervision at home.
Noting that there is a surge in requests for food rations, MIS stated that the pandemic has sparked uncertainty for food ration distributions as well due to the new restrictions on gatherings and physical distancing.
MIS also highlighted the issue of overcrowded living conditions in the public rental housing system where large families are housed in small two-room flats, unrelated elderly tenants have to share one-room flats with no bedrooms, and two households are housed in each three-room flat in the Interim Rental Housing scheme.
“Social workers as well as medical practitioners working in rental housing neighbourhoods have long observed that sickness tends to spread more easily among the children of large families who live in small flats,” MIS wrote, adding that the current restrictions will cause more family conflicts with domestic violence already on the rise.
“One pressing concern is how much of this impact will translate into homelessness. One outreach group has issued a call for individuals and organisations to offer temporary shelter, because of fears that homelessness shelters may be full,” MIS added.
The third issue the article highlighted is education as schools across the country have fully switched to home-based learning.
MIS asserted, “Efforts to bridge the digital divide through the distribution of laptops and ensuring internet access is ongoing. But the divide extends beyond devices: the sudden shift to home-based learning (HBL) aggravates an already unlevel playing field, in terms of how children’s educational as well as leisure needs are supported at home, and how parents (especially women) negotiate work-life conflicts and the increased caregiving needs presented by HBL.”
Lastly, MIS highlighted that social participation makes one feel a sense of belonging in society, but now social activities are being suspended due to the pandemic which has affected this aspect of life.