Source of Image : iStock – https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/asian-unemployed-businesswoman-stressed-after-failure-and-laid-off-from-work-because-gm1253163580-365885902
By Muhammad ‘Aamil Azhar, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia (Institut MASA)
The COVID-19 pandemic which started back in March 2020 has crippled our country’s economy, leading to disruptions across various industries. Due to the nationwide lockdowns, we’ve seen a cessation in a huge swath of our economic sectors, some closed temporarily whilst others permanently. Even with more leniency with the current lockdown, the disallowing of daily activities will surely deal a great blow to our already tired and bruised businesses, workers, students, parents and families bringing about social ills such as depression, mental illness, domestic violence, etc.
In a speech announcing the government’s new round of stimulus packages, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin estimates a loss of RM1 Billion in lost GDP for each day Malaysia is under lockdown. In a webinar hosted by Institut MASA prior to the PM’s speech, economics Professor Jamal Othman, UKM estimated the loss to be lower, at RM265 Million a day. Their numbers might starkly differ but they both agree on the same thing, government assistance is vital in ensuring the survival and upkeep of the rakyat’s welfare.
Mr Chin Chee Seong from the SME Association of Malaysia fears that 50,000 more SMEs will shutter permanently should the MCO extend another six weeks. SMEs are the most prolific employers in this country, and a possible closure of roughly 5.5% of total SMEs would land a big blow to the already poor (and actually understated) unemployment rate. For context, the SME sector is the biggest employer in Malaysia, accounting for 65.5 per cent of total employment in 2015.
Owners and workers of SMEs are squeezed from the top down with the new rounds of lockdowns. Many have lamented that the announced loan moratoriums, or the negotiated terms of payment were more bite than bark. Big businesses and their large sums of capital can weather this economy, multinational companies can pack their bags up and head to our neighbours but the backbone of our economy, our SMEs are facing a slow and painful death.
Just like the first MCO, this round of lockdowns have also exacerbated the issue of mental health. The gravity of this silent pandemic is evident with a total of 53 suicide reports and 19 attempted suicide cases were reported in Penang alone between January and May this year. Since a large portion of our population is now stuck at home with limited sources of entertainment, saddled with economic stress and uncertainty, psychologists have noticed an increase in addiction. Dr Prem Kumar, another panelist on the webinar conducted by MASA, said behavioural addiction, such as Internet addiction and virtual sex addiction, is also rising in tandem with drug abuse during the MCO period. He has seen a rise in drug abuse cases among Malaysians, with reasons attributed mainly to numb emotions and suppress their pain. The doctor further warned that addiction thrives on isolation. Without healthy interpersonal connections, drugs and alcohol become ‘best friends’ for people.
Fellow mental health expert, Dr Hariyati, chimed in, calling for the government to recognise mental health service as an essential service. Her experience with MERCY Malaysia, where they and their partners have logged more than 120,000 calls, found that nearly half of the callers face psychological issues.
The breadth and depth of the assistance provided during lockdown will be the critical juncture in whether Malaysia would be on the right track to achieving an equitable future as envisioned in the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV 2030). The government has to strike a delicate balance between its responsibility of protecting the populace from the virus (and sanity!) and achieving SPV 2030’s goals of development for all and addressing wealth & income disparity. It is also time for this country as a whole to take issues of mental health more seriously. Economic growth alone is not sufficient for us to weather this pandemic, mental resilience should also be a big part of it.