The Big Read: How COVID-19, dubbed the ‘inequality virus’, has further widened the rich-poor gap

The Big Read: How COVID-19, dubbed the ‘inequality virus’, has further widened the rich-poor gap

SINGAPORE: Crammed in a two-room rental flat in Tampines with 11 other family members, homemaker Jalinah Jamaludin often fears that the COVID-19 virus could infect her whole family due to their living conditions.

Social distancing in her small apartment — which measures about 410 sq ft and has only one toilet and a bedroom — is out of the question, when the whole family has to stay at home for large parts of the day amid the community restrictions.

“It is impossible for us to be isolated if any of us happens to fall sick,” said Mdm Jalinah, 44.

She lives in the rented Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat with her ailing husband and 10 children, aged between eight and 20.

Over at one of the blocks of rental flats in Jalan Kukoh, where a new cluster of Covid-19 infections was discovered last week, Madam Roslianda Sulaiman, 52, had to send her granddaughter, 12, away to live with a relative for the girl’s safety.

She and her grandson, nine, had been issued with quarantine orders due to a possible close contact between the boy and a classmate at Cantonment Primary School.

Mdm Roslianda, a part-time dishwashing assistant at a food court, who has not worked for some time due to a leg condition and had lost her husband six months ago, said the week-long quarantine period was a much-needed respite amid her grief and the troubles of daily life.

“(Social workers) would send food to our doorstep, and my grandson’s teachers went out of their way to help him with his studies online,” she said.

This was a break from her daily grind of taking care of the two children, who were left with her by her estranged daughter, while trying to find paid work.

Two floors above, cleaner Ng Hock Seng, 71, who shares the rental flat with a friend, spoke about how his employer told him to not return to work until he receives a negative test result from the mandatory testing operation that began over the weekend. Mr Ng was tested on Tuesday.

His friend, who is also a cleaner, had already found out his test result through the TraceTogether phone application and had returned to his job.

But Mr Ng, a divorcee, has to remain at home to await the result — his old mobile phone lacks the features needed to install the contact tracing application, and social workers have arranged to give him a newer model next week.

All over the world, COVID-19 has ripped through societies with devastating effects on lives and livelihoods. In the process, it has also laid bare the fault lines.

In India for example, where social inequalities are stark and the Covid-19 death toll has exceeded 430,000, Dr Jagdish Hiremath, a leading cardiologist at India’s ACE Healthcare, noted in a tweet: “Social distancing is a privilege.

“It means you live in a house large enough to practise it. Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water.

“Lockdowns are a privilege. It means you can afford to be at home. Most of the ways to ward off (the coronavirus) are accessible only to the affluent.”

The situation in Singapore is much less dire.

Nevertheless, the country’s lower-income households as well as those who work in manual jobs, which typically pay lower salaries, face a more challenging reality during the pandemic — whether it is to do with pandemic safety, access to digital services or caring for the young, said social workers and academics who study inequality.

Several international studies have shown that the overarching effects of COVID-19 could deepen inequalities between rich and poor nations, between urban and rural populations, and between communities of different socioeconomic levels, age, gender and colour.

In Singapore, the Government has made it a mission to “leave no one behind” amid the pandemic, which has left behind a deep and far-reaching impact on the social needs of Singaporeans, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said a year ago.

“The crisis will not divert us from our efforts to improve social mobility, and we will ensure that no Singaporean is left behind,” said Mr Masagos at the opening of Parliament following the General Election held in July last year.

The Government had boosted its long-term ComCare cash assistance scheme prior to the pandemic. Since a year ago, it has also enhanced The Courage Fund and the Covid-19 Recovery Grant to help lower- and middle-income workers and households affected by the virus or the measures needed to battle it.

Beyond state support, social welfare organisations and charities interviewed cited the numerous programmes, schemes and COVID-19 specific emergency funds that they have raised to channel to the needy.

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