“You always have the poor with you.” Those words of Jesus were spoken over two thousand years ago. Today, the world is still battling poverty. The irony is not lost when the World Bank Group proudly proclaims that they are ‘committed to fighting poverty in all its dimensions’. Their latest data indicates that over 736 million or ten percent of the world’s population live on less than $1.90 a day.
As it is, poverty is already a debilitating affliction. But when set against a COVID-19-ravaged world, it intensifies the torment to a whole new level. To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has an unprecedented global impact is to state the obvious. No country is left unscathed. World-wide infections have surpassed thirty-five million. A million lives have perished. Millions still lie stricken in facilities. Economies have shut down, factories grind to a halt, businesses ceased operation, and millions of jobs erased.
The hardest hit however, are the poor, the marginalised or the neglected. World Bank predicts as many as 60 million people will be driven into abject poverty. While it is probably still too early to assess the overall damage, the COVID-19 pandemic has left those at the fringe of society reeling in loss, uncertainty, and confusion.
Two months ago (September 2020), I had the opportunity to interact with a group of Myanmar refugee believers in Kuala Lumpur. This group consists of pastors, assistant pastors and lay leaders. What they reported about the impact of the pandemic on their respective churches was disheartening although not surprising. The following are some highlights:
- All of the pastors reported that many of their church members have lost their jobs during the pandemic. A church which is situated right at the heart of the city of Kuala Lumpur reported that an astounding 80 per cent of their members have lost their jobs.
- All of the pastors reported that the greatest challenge caused by the pandemic was the inability to pay for their house rent.
- Many reported that they have resumed in-person worship services but all reported reduced attendance - one by as much as 50% drop. This in turn exacerbates the already meagre monthly church offering.
- Many reported that there was a great display of charity by Christians and churches who provided financial assistance and food distribution to the Myanmar churches.
- The poll also revealed that the Myanmar refugees are a resilient people. Many of those who lost employment moved away from the cities and found their way to Cameron Highlands, a highland resort famed for its tea and vegetable plantations. They were gainfully employed and provided with simple accommodation. Although not ideal, this will at least tie them over during this difficult window.
Admittedly, the sample size is too small to be representative of the overall situation amongst all diaspora groups in Kuala Lumpur. However, the results are helpful indications of what refugee groups are going through.
From this short survey, I would like to offer the following observations and associated implications:
1. Refugee communities depend on external assistance during extenuating circumstances. Generally speaking, refugees live from hand to mouth. Although they may have jobs, they are often underpaid and would not have anything left over for savings. When a crisis situation develops, they can turn to their community for temporary assistance. But in prolonged distress such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole community suffers. This leaves everyone fending for themselves. This implies that Christians and churches must rise up to help these suffering communities and not turn a blind eye to their predicament.
2. Cities both shelter and scatter refugees. Most undocumented people are attracted to the cities because of many reasons: bright lights, entertainment, facilities, services and convenience. But mostly it is because they can find employment. Concurrently, crowded cities indirectly function as a cover for undocumented people from questioning, harassment or arrest by the authorities. Cities provide a shelter of security in this sense. They are hidden in plain sight, so to speak. On the other hand, cities are also expensive to live in compared to more remote areas. Clearly, under-resourced and marginalized communities are more susceptible to economic upheavals, and inevitably during such times, cities scatter the scattered people. Business closed down. Jobs are terminated. Loss of employment means inability to pay rent. The only viable option is for the refugee families to flee city centres to out-of-town locations for survival.
3. While it is praise worthy that Christians and churches responded to the pandemic crisis by providing funds and food, perhaps it is timely to consider seriously a business-as-mission kind of ministries whereby the Myanmar and other refugee groups can be sustained by profits generated instead of relying on charities perpetually. Not many individuals or organizations are able or willing to provide long term financial assistance. Business-as-mission ministries when successfully run, can provide a sustainable alternative without diminishing the mission mandate. Admittedly, a lot more thinking and planning need to happened before this becomes a reality in Kuala Lumpur and other urban centers in Malaysia. It is hoped that this will provoke mission agencies and churches to reassess and reconsider their approach to ministry to diaspora communities in Malaysia.
“Decline of Global Extreme Poverty Continues but Has Slowed,” World Bank, accessed October 4, 2020, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/09/19/decline-of-global-extreme-poverty-continues-but-has-slowed-world-bank.