COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Families scraping by in tougher spot now

Adam (not his real name), 54, who was working as a cleaner, with his wife and children in their one-room rental flat. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Adam (not his real name), 54, who was working as a cleaner, with his wife and children in their one-room rental flat. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Households struggling to stay afloat before are in an even more precarious situation

Lina (not her real name), 42, smiled as she kept a watchful eye on her four children playing in the cramped, single-room rental flat in Jalan Kukoh - home for the family of six for over two decades.

But that smile disappeared as she laid out the family's expenses.

Her husband Adam (also not his real name), 54, usually brings home $1,600 from his cleaning job and the family still needs financial help from the Government's ComCare fund and sometimes has to borrow from relatives just to get by.

Overnight, Adam's income dropped to zero when his employer had to close shop late last month.

With the month-long circuit breaker, the family - already struggling to stay afloat before - is now in an even more precarious situation.

FALL IN INCOME

Adam's situation is not unique. Many of some 300,000 Singapore residents who earn below $2,000 have seen sudden dips in their income during the pandemic, especially after new measures on April 7 restricted businesses deemed non-essential, among other things.

Beyond Social Services helped 84 families financially in the whole of last month. But just five days into the circuit breaker, it received 123 applications for such help.

The charity contacted 300 families it is helping, and three in four said they needed more financial aid.

Many of them have little to no savings to help cushion themselves from the virus' economic fallout.

 
 
 
 

The $600 Solidarity Payment, which went out to nine in 10 Singaporean adults last Tuesday, has provided such low-income families with much-needed respite from issues arising from the loss of income.

Though given out equally to each person, the payment's benefit to struggling families is of course higher. It was also given automatically without the need for reams of paperwork.

ComCare, for example, requires beneficiaries to return to the social service office every few months so that the Government can assess the family's circumstances and adjust the amount of aid given accordingly.

Ms Nisa Nurdini, a social worker with Yishun Family Service @ Children's Society, said that being on ComCare also makes low-income families ineligible for further support from some Budget measures such as the Temporary Relief Fund, which gives $500 to those who have lost jobs or income due to Covid-19.

At the same time, existing aid may be insufficient to meet basic needs with a dip in a vulnerable family's income, said Ms Nisa.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong pointed out that such families are disproportionately affected by the virus during Budget debates this month, citing Adam as an example.

Going by her calculations, his family will receive $7,632 through all the new schemes. But Ms Ong said the family would need more than $13,000 in household expenditure for the rest of the year.

Said Ms Nisa: "Reviewing or renewing assistance can be a hassle for the family, especially with the long queues during this period and added caregiving duties at home when children are not in school."

Others not on financial assistance schemes are trying their best to put food on the table by taking on additional work.

A single parent, who wanted to be known only as Madam D. K., 33, started work with nursing home operator Orange Valley as its customer care coordinator in January.

On weekends, she delivers food for Grab with her son, aged two, strapped into a baby seat in front of her bicycle, and her daughter, five, in a child seat at the back.

"With this virus, I don't feel safe to bring them out during deliveries but I have no choice because I need the extra income. Since Covid-19 started, my GrabFood income has halved to about $50 after cycling around for a day."

GOING HUNGRY

One of the most severe and pressing consequences of the loss of income is not having enough to eat.

Ms Evelyn Lai, executive director of Viriya Community Services, said the group distributed rations to around 300 families on April 6 as its centres had to close the next day.

In just a week, its beneficiaries have asked for 57 per cent more in financial aid compared with the monthly average last year, due to reduced income and loss of jobs.

Daughters of Tomorrow, which helps lower-income women, has received 80 requests for grocery vouchers since early April and expects this to more than double by the end of the month. Some food banks can no longer provide free meals to those who need them due to the circuit breaker, it noted.

Reach Family Service head Grace Lee said the group stopped distributing food for clients without mobility issues for this month.

This is because most of its staff are working from home now and are unable to visit homes, though visits to the housebound and elderly still continue.

Ms Loh Lai Sum, another social worker from Yishun Family Service, said many of these charities are now facing supply and manpower issues while struggling to meet rising demand.

Beyond Social Services deputy executive director Ranganayaki Thangavelu shared that food distribution operations needed to be reworked due to safe distancing regulations. A lifeline, especially for frail seniors who are unable to go out to get food, has been the continuation of the Meals-on-Wheels (MoW) programme during the circuit breaker. The government service delivers food to the housebound.

Dr Jamie Pang, cluster director for community eldercare at Methodist Welfare Services, said the group has connected 45 seniors to MoW. Some of them have started getting two meals a day from April 10, three days after the circuit breaker came into effect.

Although official schemes and vouchers help, many families would still go hungry without charities.

For example, while the Education Ministry has extended school meal subsidies for students on financial assistance to cover home-based learning for the circuit breaker, Ms Loh said this is insufficient as meals outside schools are usually costlier.

Ms Thangavelu said the rising prices of some food items and essentials are not helping. "This is exacerbated by bouts of panic buying that leave shelves empty, particularly the more affordably priced items."

HARDSHIP AT HOME

Like food insecurity, the lack of living space is another existing problem made worse amid the pandemic.

 
 
 

A one-or two-room rental flat is about 45 sq m. This space, intended for one or two, is sometimes crammed with a family of seven or even eight, making social distancing all but impossible.

Mr Abhishek Bajaj of 6th Sense, which helps children from about 30 rental homes in Kebun Baru in Ang Mo Kio, said many breadwinners are cleaners, drivers and deliverymen - jobs with high exposure.

They could easily bring the virus back to their families.

"What is now happening in (foreign worker) dorms could easily translate to rental blocks. The worry for parents, many with very young kids, is very real," said Mr Bajaj.

ReadAble co-founder Michelle Yeo said Covid-19 brings the situation "to the edge".

Her organisation holds reading and language classes for children from some 50 mostly rental flat homes in Chin Swee Road. They often visit each other or play in communal spaces. "It makes it all the more urgent. If one family is infected without realising it, and the kids still run around, how easily would the virus spread in an already vulnerable community?"

Clinical psychologist Pearlene Ng said being in a confined space can take a toll on mental health and cause stress, anxiety and anger.

"This may be due to lack of personal space, increased inactivity, and even fear about their health or of infecting their loved ones due to close proximity," said Dr Ng.

Already cramped living quarters now also have to double as classrooms for home-based learning.

This becomes an issue when such households may not have Internet connections or have limited devices to be shared among multiple children.

In addition to loaning out 3,300 devices, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung has allowed students from vulnerable backgrounds to return to school for studies. MOE has since loaned out about 12,500 devices.

But he also noted that some parents are not letting their children do so "for various reasons".

Families that The Sunday Times spoke to said they feared their children would catch the virus while commuting to school.

Mr Bajaj shared that some children under his care were scared their teachers would "scold" them.

"They may not know how to ask for help, and there is a deficit of trust in the system. A lot of families didn't even bother asking the school in the first place."

EXISTING CRACKS

Mistrust, living space, food insecurity and low wages are issues that have always existed for low-income families, but have made Covid-19 even harder for them to bear.

 
 
 

For example, official figures released last July showed that the bottom 20 per cent of households spend $2,570 a month, but have an income of $2,235 including regular government help, which means an average shortfall of $335.

They are the only income group with income below spending needs - but this has been the case for at least the past decade.

The virus may have thrown such issues into painfully sharp relief, but as Adam said, it is not as though he had no problems before the virus. "Now, I just worry even more. I have five people (to look after), no job, and I don't know what will happen after April," he said.

Barely scraping by in ordinary times, such families find themselves even more hard-pressed by layoffs and strict mobility rules during this period.

3:16 Church volunteer coordinator Debbie Ng has come across many such households while delivering groceries tailored to their needs. They include a special needs child whose parents were both laid off, a couple in their 80s living in a one-room flat with a daughter with special needs, and an 85-year-old woman with two daughters, one mentally challenged and the other visually impaired. The latter is a motivational speaker and the sole breadwinner, but speaking gigs are hard to come by now.

Mr Lim Jingzhou, co-founder of Cassia Resettlement Team, which helps rental flat residents, said structural issues have brought deep suffering and will lead to "fires" now because they were not addressed before. "Resilience has helped these communities survive till now, but the sad reality is that there will be more fires than can be put out," he said.

In the same vein, Dr Ng Kok Hoe, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the "stark policy lesson" is that cracks that are present in normal times will only widen during a crisis. "Problems with food security among poor households, educational inequality, overcrowded housing in the public rental scheme, inadequate social security outside the wage economy... these are the challenges we must tackle with more resolve when the crisis lifts."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline 'Families scraping by in tougher spot now'. Print Edition | Subscribe