One illness away from poverty

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KUALA LUMPUR: Eswari Raghavan would have fainting spells after sweeping the floor, cooking or tying up the flower garlands that she sells to feed herself and her two daughters.

But the 38-year-old widow and single mother soldiers on even though her doctor has warned her that her crippled heart cannot handle stress and that too much activity can be lethal.

Yet this is the daily struggle for people like Eswari and others earning less than RM3,000 a month in Malaysia. She is among the people, the government itself has admitted, who make up 80% of Malaysia’s income earners.

Due to the rising prices of food and household items, they have to risk their health and work long hours just to make enough to get by.

And because they have little or no savings, their families could fall into poverty if they fall sick and are unable to work.

There is some government support, but Eswari feels that it is not enough for someone in her condition.

She gets RM820 from the Social Security Organisation (Socso) and RM80 from the Welfare Department (Jabatan Kabajikan Malaysia or JKM). JKM had also paid half of the medical bills she incurred for the two operations on her heart at Universiti Hospital.

“The hospital is chasing me for the other half of the cost. I can’t pay them because I need the money for my daughters’ education,” Eswari said when met at her flat in Abdullah Hukum, Kuala Lumpur.

Her neighbour Norasah Bachik has her own ailments which hamper her ability to provide for her husband Othman Simin, 64, who has had a heart surgery and can’t handle strenuous work.

Norasah, 60, has problems walking because of knee pain but she continues to make and sell nasi lemak and kuih in the morning to support her family.

“It is hard but I must push myself to work in order to earn more,” said Norasah.

At another flat in Taman Sri Sentosa, Petaling Jaya, Yee Seng Yean tells of how he and his 78-year-old wife are still doing odd jobs around the neighbourhood to make enough money to pay for their medicine and food.

“Back in the old days, I was a carpenter in Kampung Petaling Tin. Now I do odd jobs. I can earn RM60 to RM70 a day from painting jobs.”

His wife Yong Yok Moi, whose back is hunched due to old age and struggles to walk, washes dishes at a nearby restaurant for RM20 a day.

“Collectively we can earn RM1,500 a month, but all that boils down to whether we manage to work that month,” said Yee.

In the case of other people who also live a hand-to-mouth existence, the strenuous nature of their low-paying jobs and long working hours are taking a toll on their health. Michael De Cruz, for example, drives a lorry for eight hours a day before starting another eight-hour shift at the wheel of a taxi.

Both vehicles have manual transmissions and the tightness of the clutch system jams the muscles in his left leg. The delicate muscles at the sides of his knees are especially raw and painful at the end of the day.

“If he doesn’t drive for two days, there is no money in hand to buy the things we need,” said De Cruz’s wife M Rathyaga.” – Full report in The Malaysian Insider

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on September 4, 2014.