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Fear, uncertainty and the grim face of poverty in Hong Kong with COVID-19

Before the pandemic, 1.4 million people in the city were living below the poverty line. The programme Insight finds out how worse off they are just as the fourth wave is upon them.

Fear, uncertainty and the grim face of poverty in Hong Kong with COVID-19

Can the poor in Hong Kong withstand the current pandemic and economic slump?

HONG KONG: Living in one of the most expensive cities, Lam Ka Yuen keeps asking himself if he can survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

With no promise of a decent job, his worries are growing with each passing day. “I have a lot of expenses, like rent, bills and tuition fees for my daughter … I had to use my savings,” said the 54-year-old single father.

“Every day, I worry about paying rent … about what the landlord would think if I can’t afford the rent. And if it’s late, then it might be increased next year. It’s the most stressful part for me.”

For the poor in Hong Kong like him, the fourth wave of infections that began recently — with new restrictions taking effect from yesterday — could possibly be calamitous. At the least, the coming weeks will be crucial.

Mr Lam Ka Yuen.

If the latest surge lasts “quite a while — not just one month or half a month”, it would create “quite a problem”, said Associate Professor Wong Hung from the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Social Work.

“Many … of the poor people already just have one month or half a month (of savings). If they don’t have an income, what can they do? They’ll become homeless.”

Before COVID-19, there were 1.4 million people, or 20.4 per cent of the population, living below the poverty line (before taking government aid into account) — the highest level in a decade.

Now in the economic aftermath of the pandemic, the programme Insight finds out how much the poor have become more afraid and unsure about their future, in one of the most unequal places in terms of income levels.

An elderly street scavenger.

STRUGGLING TO MAKE A LIVING

The city’s unemployment rate has risen to 6.4 per cent, a 15-year high, while the rate for those living in poverty “is even higher”, noted Terence Chong, executive director of the Lau Chor Tak Institute of Global Economics and Finance.

“They’re the ones who are more likely to be fired. So the situation is quite serious,” said the professor. For example, in the construction, catering and accommodation sectors, the unemployment rate is “double digits”, he cited.

One person who has felt the brunt of this is Lam, who has worked in catering and restaurants for 30 years. He was asked to leave his job in a restaurant after social gatherings and dine-in services were first banned.

“Two years ago, I’d have said catering was my lifetime career. But now the COVID-19 pandemic has totally changed my mind,” he said. “Catering is going downhill until the pandemic is gone. I haven’t worked in catering since February.”

Mr Lam outside a restaurant.

He then worked in a billiard parlour as a service assistant, but the place closed after two months. With little hope of returning to the food industry anytime soon, he took up a lower-paid job at a mask-making factory.

Again, he could not stay long in the job. Stiff competition in the industry, stringent quality checks and an oversupply of workers soon forced factories to lay off people.

The Hong Kong government has tried to help employers retain their workers by providing wage subsidies.

But nearly a quarter of employers who benefited from this still laid off workers, especially after the pandemic started to eat into their bottom lines. Or they did not pay full wages.

The wage subsidies are capped at HK$9,000 (S$1,550) per month for each employee.

“Some (workers) can earn only half of their salary, as they’re only working half their shifts. People are having a difficult time,” noted Anthony Chiu, executive director of the Federation of Public Housing Estates.

FEELING THE SQUEEZE

The possibility of a jobless future is adding to the pressure on poor Hongkongers to secure their basic necessities during this pandemic.

“It’s a double difficulty … Inflation is high, food is expensive (and) even at the beginning, masks were so expensive,” said Sze Lai-shan, a community organiser with the Society for Community Organisations (SoCo), a charity dedicated to serving the underprivileged.

“(If) they have children, they’d need to attend online classes. So they need to pay (for) the computer or more internet (access), and maybe they don’t have this kind of equipment … Also, they have more family conflicts.”

Ms Sze Lai-shan helping a poor Hongkonger.

The majority of those she serves have lost their jobs, and “over 80 per cent” of them are now underemployed.

Social workers and volunteers from SoCo visit Hong Kong’s poorer neighbourhoods regularly to help in dealing with such pressures, and also to distribute masks and sanitisers in the hope of warding off a COVID-19 outbreak in these crowded living spaces.

Lam is one of those getting help. He lives with his teenage daughter in a 150-square-foot unit in a cramped apartment building. They are among more than 200,000 people living in subdivided flats in the city.

For some of them, all they can afford is a “coffin home” — smaller than a standard parking space. Take, for example, Ah Kwok (not his real name), who lives in a 450-sq-ft flat partitioned for 20 people.

"Ah Kwok" in in the partitioned flat he shares with 19 others in Yau Ma Tei area.

He had planned to stay there for only two to three months. But it has been half a year now. “When I can’t sleep, I think of the past and wonder how I ended up in this situation,” he said.

The 52-year-old former waiter used to commute from Shenzhen daily for work, as he could not afford to buy or rent a decent place in Hong Kong.

But when the borders closed after the pandemic struck, he had to stay in the Special Administrative Region. For the tiny space he occupies, he has to pay nearly HK$1,800 (S$310) a month.

Now unemployed, he is looking for work. But jobs are scarce. The cleaning jobs he gets from time to time do not pay enough to cover his daily expenses. So he often just stays in his bunk.

"Ah Kwok" would like to move out of his coffin home if he can.

THE ELDERLY POOR

To define poverty in Hong Kong, the government uses the concept of relative poverty: Households with less than half of the median income of that household size are classified as poor.

For a family of four, the poverty line is HK$21,000. But for a one-person household, the poverty line is HK$4,000. “So it’s quite low for those one-person and two-person families because many of them are elderly people,” said Wong.

Before the pandemic, there were 360,000 Hongkongers over the age of 65 living in poverty, constituting about 25 per cent of the elderly population.

With little education and no savings, the elderly poor such as 95-year-old Shui Lai, known affectionately as Po Po, face an even tougher struggle now.

Shui Lai has collected disused cardboards and other scrap since she was in her 40s.

She used to earn close to HK$50 daily from scavenging for cardboard. But the lower level of economic activity amid the pandemic means fewer cardboard boxes. Sometimes she earns as little as HK$25 daily.

“I still have to work. I haven’t applied for any allowance from the government, as I don’t qualify. But I’ve got a place to live and have enough,” she said.

I should’ve retired at my age. But I’d have no income, and I’ve got monthly expenses. My children also have to take care of their own families and can’t really look after me.

Many seniors like her, nicknamed “cardboard grannies”, are fiercely independent, noted Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare.

“We have NGOs trying to approach them and help them and say, ‘Why don’t you apply for welfare?’ And they say … ‘No matter how hard my life is, I still want to live on my own hands,’” he said.

“So there are indeed people in the community who refuse to be helped, or they don’t want to seek help from the government … We’ve been offering some of our assistance, but they’re not always welcoming such assistance.”

WATCH: Hong Kong’s cardboard granny — the elderly poor struggle amid COVID-19 (5:02)

Shui plods on instead, unworried by the fact that the elderly are also more vulnerable to the coronavirus. “Many people gave me medical masks,” she said.

“I’m more worried about my legs as I get older. My legs feel tired … easily.”

STAYING THE COURSE FOR NOW

As Hong Kong now strives to mitigate its fourth coronavirus wave, the poor can only do their best to keep going.

For Lam, falling ill is not an option; it would be too expensive for him, so he buys disinfectants and makes sure to “come home with (his) shoes sanitised”.

“I try to be as healthy as I can, as I always caught flu in the past. It costs HK$290 to visit a private doctor. And at the public hospital, the wait is too long,” he said.

“I searched online and found that making garlic vinegar helps my body recover. My daughter wasn’t willing to have it, but now she thinks it works too.”

Buying fruits.

For those who are younger, time is on their side.

When the pandemic struck, 31-year-old Sai Lo (not his real name) was put out of a job in the catering industry too. But he feels that he still has a future in catering eventually.

The ex-convict also lives in a coffin home, but dreams of owning a better home one day. He said: “One may be poor but never ceases to be ambitious.”

To occupy his time in between temporary jobs, he has started volunteering with SoCo — which he has been getting help from — in the hope of helping others in a similar situation.

WATCH: The full episode — the plight of the poor in one of world’s richest cities (48:55)

“I know what they need, and I know how they feel. That’s why I decided to keep going,” he said.

Ah Kwok, on the other hand, is hoping only “to be able to eat enough and have accommodation” — and for the pandemic to end soon so that his suffering will ease.

“I hope the government can create more jobs for us, otherwise people in low income groups, like me, will suffer the most. I feel as if only one wrong step and I’d fall off a cliff,” he said.

“I have no hope of getting out of poverty. My only hope is to live a simple life. If I were rich, I’d rather spend the money to help poor people … because I’ve experienced life in poverty.”

Watch this Insight episode here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.

For more on poverty in Asia, read about hunger, death and exploitation of the poor in India in the pandemic, and how poverty runs a thread through Indonesia as COVID-19 puts millions on the brink. Also, can the poor in Malaysia cope with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Source: CNA/dp

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