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UNFPA-Unicef study shows struggles of low-income families post-MCO

24 August 2020

While eight in 10 urban poor children in Malaysia were able to study online during the initial stages of the country’s lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, only two out of five had insufficient equipment, according to a new study by Unicef and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) titled “Families on the Edge”.

Released today, the study detailed the impact of the government’s movement control order (MCO) back in March on low-income families in cities and showed that such households, especially those headed by women like widows and single mothers, were forced to cut back spending on their children by as much as 84 per cent.

The percentage forced to scrimp on their household expenditure was notably higher for those living in low-cost flats or Projek Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) at 23 per cent in Kuala Lumpur and 29 per cent Malaysia overall.

Although nearly all of the 500 households surveyed for the Unicef-UNFPA could engage in remote learning by using technology including WhatsApp and Google Classrooms, the lack of devices hampered their ability to study properly.

According to the survey, most urban poor households do not have personal computers and must instead rely on the mobile phones of the adult members.

Usage of internet data is an additional cost on these households, although the free 1GB as announced by the Communications and Multimedia Commissions helped.

Additionally, the survey found that urban poor parents were not able to adequately supervise when and how their children used the devices, due to their lack of time or knowledge.

Unicef Malaysia’s social policy chief Stephen Barrett said the main concern is if the children of low-income households reduce their home learning rates.

“Their educational attainment plunged even more when compared to their higher-income peers.

“Furthermore, a large proportion of low-income children face more challenges when they eventually go back to schools after the MCO,” he said during the launch of the Unicef-UNFPA study here this afternoon.

One such problem is households being able to afford regular food.

Barrett said that prior to the MCO, 16 per cent of households were affected, and rose after March 18 —  when Malaysia’s lockdown was initiated.

“During the MCO this rose up to 18 per cent, and it is a known fact that hungry children do not learn properly. So there is a risk that low-income children may end up not going back to school.

“Coupled with the rising instances of child poverty and general malnutrition in Malaysia, Covid-19 will further exacerbate these disparities between lower-income households and their higher-income counterparts despite the efforts of the government to close these disparities,” he said.

On the whole, the Unicef-UNFPA report shows that urban low-income families face higher rates of unemployment, and experience greater challenges in healthcare and home-based learning.

The UN agencies noted that the pandemic has also worsened food insecurities, forcing many households to adopt less healthy diets.

They said Malaysian households headed by women such as widows or single mothers are particularly vulnerable, with a 32 per cent unemployment rate compared to others.

Similarly, 57 per cent of female-headed low-income households have no access to social protection.