'Inequality is our weakest link in this fight': NMP Anthea Ong urges more support for vulnerable groups

Outbreaks such as Covid-19 have immense impacts of people's mental health.

Jane Zhang | April 06, 2020, 10:40 PM

The Covid-19 outbreak has illuminated cracks in society that the government should fix, said Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Anthea Ong in Parliament during the Resilience Budget debate on Monday, Apr. 6.

Despite the generous budget, Ong said, there is still more that needs to be done:

"The crisis illuminates long-term cracks that we must address decisively for a good and strong rebound as a nation. Every crisis is an opportunity to observe the cracks, rectify the causes, and become more prepared for the future."

Ong highlighted in her speech the cracks in two areas: mental health issues amidst the crisis, and low income households who will bear the brunt of the crisis.

Covid-19 impact on mental health

Ong acknowledged that unlike the Resilience Budget of Mar. 2020, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat mentioned support for mental health in the Solidarity Budget.

Groups particularly affected by Covid-19 include victims of domestic abuse, senior citizens who suffer from loneliness, and individuals living with mental illness who suffer a relapse or whose conditions worsen.

Ong called for increased support for mental health, saying, "Now, more than ever, we must prioritise mental health support."

Thus, she pushed for the following measures to improve mental health support in Singapore:

  • Relevant experts appointed to join the multi-ministry task force on Covid-19, in order to advise the government on mental health implications and commensurate policy interventions​.
  • Government can ​broadcast practical advice on maintaining mental well-being​, and that guidance be published for all employers on supporting their employees’ mental well-being.
  • The first mental healthcare consultation be free for all Singaporeans, in order to incentivise people to seek help.​
  • The Public Services Division to provide necessary mental health support for ​all civil servants and healthcare workers.

In addition, Ong added, more resources should be be given to organisations that provide free counselling services, such as Samaritans of Singapore, AWARE, and Silver Ribbon, as their resources are likely to be strained in the coming days.

Lower-income households and individuals disproportionately affected

Ong mentioned that lower-income households and individuals are affected more than most people by the Covid-19 situation, and that their insecure situation is exacerbated in an economic crisis.

She contended that despite the measures announced as part of the Resilience Budget, they are not enough to provide for a low-income family that loses its income.

Thus, she called for the government to provide low-income families with more assistance, more quickly, and for a longer duration.

She cited the example of "Adam", a hotel cleaner in his 50s who had not worked since Mar. 25. Even in good months, he would take home about S$1,600, the bulk of which went towards paying for groceries.

"Unfortunately, the measures announced are not enough to bail out a low income household that loses its income, especially for those with several dependents," said Ong.

Recommendations to reduce administrative load on social service agencies

Ong noted that it would be ideal if the administrative load on social service agencies could be reduced, so they could focus on helping the needy.

Therefore, Ong pushed for the government to reduce the need for proof to receive assistance:

"Given these priorities, we may have to trade off the luxury of deep-diving every case to test its deservedness. For applicants, this also cuts out the need to apply in-person and prove their suffering over and over again."

She then made two recommendations.

Firstly, she pushed for making automatic disbursement the norm.

The Temporary Relief Fund and the Covid-19 Support Grant could be automatically disbursed based on things such as changes in CPF contributions or self-declarations.

Secondly, she recommended making help unconditional and reducing the amount of evidence required to prove to the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) of validity of the claim.

Instead, she proposed, MSF officers could be given the power to investigate individuals suspected of abusing the system.

She also proposed the extension of the Temporary Relief Fund and Covid-19 Support Grant to lower-income families, and the provision of more immediate relief in the form of ​HDB rental waivers until the end of the year and further rebates to service and conservancy charges.​

Food security and safe home environments

Ong also suggested that the government could work with the F&B sector and food delivery companies to provide food to ​all low-income families, similar to the multi-sectoral effort they put together with hotels in order to accommodate Singaporeans returning from overseas serving their Stay-Home Notices.

This would ensure food security for needy households, while also supporting local F&B businesses and delivery riders.

She also highlighted the infrastructural dangers of low-income families living in small rental flats, sharing that there are more than 1,425 households in Singapore where five or more people live in a one-room flat.

"Such crowded living conditions create a ripe environment for infection which in turn could spread to the wider community", she explained.

Prevent overcrowding

Thus, to prevent overcrowding, Ong suggested that vulnerable families be housed in flats with features to protect public health. These features include ventilated corridors, rooms to enable distancing, and separate elevators serving different floors.

She also expressed her concern about the recent clusters linked to migrant worker dormitories:

"I wish to record my deep concern regarding the isolation of 20,000 of our migrant workers in these cramped facilities - this ​must not become the 'Diamond Princess' on our shores.

Alternative and more favourable living arrangements in spaces freed up from the circuit breaker measures must be urgently ​considered to avoid a large scale tragedy of infected cases and mortality."

Must not let crisis go to waste

Referring to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's words at the Extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit — "All of us are only as strong as our weakest link" — Ong added:

"Indeed, unity is strength yet inequality is our weakest link in this fight against Covid-19 and to our future as a strong united Singapore."

She recognised that the measures announced in the Resilience Budget are essential, but that Singapore must also use the crisis as a way to develop better systems for the future:

"We must not let a good crisis go to waste. We must boldly address the structural inequalities in wage and housing conditions that are clear and present, made more exigent by this crisis.

This, too, shall pass. And when it does, a more mentally resilient and equal Singapore must, and will, be what becomes of us."

She closed her speech thanking healthcare workers, civil servants, social workers, community practitioners, volunteers, and everyone else who has supported their fellow Singaporeans during this time, and reminded them to take care of themselves

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Top photo via Parliament website and Pexels.