Assessment of Covid-19’s Impact on Low Income and Other Vulnerable Persons and Households

Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2020

https://mothership.sg/2020/03/rental-flat-tenants/

Ms Anthea Ong asked the Minister for Social and Family Development (a) how has COVID-19 affected low-income Singaporean and transnational families, low-income seniors, the differently-abled, and persons with mental health conditions; (b) how does the Ministry monitor and assess the COVID-19 impact on these Singaporeans; © what measures, including multi-Ministry efforts, are being put in place to support them comprehensively; and (d) how has the COVID-19 crisis illuminated opportunities to review existing social support policies for these groups in terms of food security, job security and personal resources for “rainy” days.

The Minister for Social and Family Development (Mr Desmond Lee): Mr Speaker, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our economy and disrupted livelihoods, just as it has affected other countries.

Some groups inadvertently feel the impact more immediately and acutely. For example, low-income workers with little savings may need additional financial help if their work is affected. Others with unique care needs, such as persons with limited mobility or disabilities, may worry if services such as meal delivery or home nursing would be disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me highlight a few key efforts to help those affected by COVID-19.

First, I would like to assure Members that the essential services such as the Social Service Offices (SSOs), senior care centres, residential and home-based care services, and community mental health services will continue to provide support for their clients, with precautionary measures in place. Though we have temporarily halted activities at Senior Activity Centres as added precaution for our seniors, the centres’ staff continue to watch over the seniors within their service boundaries and check in on them in person where necessary.

Second, MSF and other Government agencies have stepped up measures to address various needs arising from COVID-19.

Our SSOs proactively contact past and present ComCare clients who have been issued Quarantine Orders or Stay-Home Notices to see if they require any financial assistance, and facilitate their applications where needed. We have made the application process more convenient by allowing them to submit their documents electronically. We also work with the People’s Association to provide other forms of help, such as assistance buying food and groceries, if the person under quarantine or Stay-Home Notice does not have any such support from their families, neighbours, or other parties.

The Silver Generation Office reaches out to vulnerable seniors such as those living alone or who are frail. Since last month, Silver Generation Ambassadors have started visiting these seniors in their homes to communicate COVID-19 precautionary measures, such as hygiene tips and social distancing. They also identify seniors who require additional assistance during this period, and link them up with the appropriate social service agencies and service providers to ensure that their needs are met. During the upcoming circuit breaker, these agencies will continue to reach out to our seniors through the various forms.

Third, the Finance Minister recently announced our second care and support package to help Singaporeans tide over the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who require more help this period will benefit more. This includes the new COVID-19 Support Grant for those who have lost their jobs due to the crisis, relief for self-employed persons and additional flexibility for ComCare, such as providing a longer duration of assistance to lower income workers. For individuals who require employment assistance, Workforce Singapore (WSG) and NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) offer a range of employment facilitation services and programmes under the Adapt and Grow initiative.

We are also continuing our efforts to make social services and help more convenient, comprehensive and coordinated. For example, in the area of food insecurity, we have convened a multi-sector workgroup comprising food organisations, volunteer groups and Government agencies to address issues of food waste and distribution inefficiencies. Members of the workgroup are supporting one another, especially during this period, to keep their operations going, highlighting the spirit of partnership that serves us well in times like this. Such partnerships complement ongoing efforts and schemes such as ComCare that assist low-income households with daily living expenses including food, and MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme for school-going children in lower income families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also underscored the importance of a whole-of-society approach to tackling crisis. We see an outpouring of support from corporates, unions, volunteer groups, grassroots and religious groups to support the vulnerable. Many have also donated generously to The Courage Fund to support our healthcare and frontline workers, and lower income families affected by COVID-19. The NTUC Care Fund has announced a scheme to provide up to $300 in one-off cash relief for their union members who have lost income due to the outbreak. These are just some of the examples of many instances of the community rallying to support one another.

And this is especially important, because caring for one another, especially the vulnerable, is not simply a collective responsibility, but a national imperative during crisis. Beyond cushioning the economic impact, it is also about sustaining relationships and strengthening our social capital as a collective. COVID-19 may have brought challenges for us, but this is also an opportunity for us to strengthen our bonds and build a stronger society.

Mr Speaker: Ms Anthea Ong.

Ms Anthea Ong (Nominated Member): Thank you, Sir. I thank the Minister for the assuring response. I have three supplementary questions, if you do not mind.

With the new circuit breaker measures, given the closure of Family Violence Specialist Centres and Child Protection Specialist Centres, with limited provision of services, what is the Ministry’s plan to ensure that individuals in need of support for such issues continue to receive adequate and timely support, especially given that these centres serve as essential safe spaces for these individuals?

The second one is do the MSF services for this issue, such as Adult Protection Services and Child Protection Services, have adequate resources to deal with the potential increase in abuse, violence cases that may increase as individuals now spend a significant amount of time at home and have less access to other possible safe spaces? And will the Minister actually have these services introduce measures to allow individuals in distress to walk in to a safe space?

The last supplementary question is I think this crisis, which has caught us off guard, also shown a spotlight on the frontline role of social service agencies (SSAs) and ground-ups who know the needs of the affected communities better and also get to them better. I just want to ask the Minister, I understand there is a lot of anxiety amongst these SSAs and ground-ups, especially the smaller ones, particularly in terms of donations drying up, so could the Minister share with the House what are some of the support measures that we will have for them?

Mr Desmond Lee: Sir, I thank the Member for her deep concern about vulnerable Singaporeans, especially those hit very hard by this crisis. First, during the circuit breaker, we have looked at what is happening in other countries which have imposed these kinds of measures to keep people indoors. There is a trend we are observing of higher rates of domestic violence and quarrels, and friction in the family. So, we are extremely mindful of that. As announced yesterday, we are going to set a national care hotline where anybody can call in to be supported by psychologists, counsellors and other people, and we then refer these people to specialist services to enable them to get the help they need and to get it early.

The Family Violence Specialist Centres, the Child Protection Specialist Centres, these are essential services. Whilst we want to put in place safe distancing measures for the protection of the vulnerable individuals as well as our social sector professionals, these social service agencies, together with Adult Protection Service and Child Protection Service, they continue to function as essential services; and we will make sure that they are adequately resourced during this time.

In terms of the social sector, we entirely recognise the concerns they have had. In fact, both MSF and the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) have been having dialogue sessions and town halls, both in person and digitally, electronically with the SSAs, to understand their specific concerns and to help them through this period.

Early on in this crisis, we had announced the funding for each SSA to help them with BCP, help them with cleaning and sanitation support, and to help them in other areas. We are bringing to the fore many of the existing schemes, such as the VWO Charity Capability Fund (VCF) as well as other schemes, that enable our SSAs to put in place the mechanisms, to bring in the technology and the skills, to be able to continue to support vulnerable Singaporeans during this crisis, but in the climate where safe distancing needs to be respected.

The concern about donations is well recognised. We extended the Bicentennial Fund co-matching beyond the March timeline to enable SSAs to continue to benefit from co-funding. And, of course, subsequently, in this Budget debate, we will be announcing further measures to support our SSAs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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