As COVID-19 rages, more in Singapore go hungry

After being let go from his part-time job as a waiter last year during the pandemic, Danny Goh hit rock bottom.

For eight months, he struggled to find work to support his wife and four young children. The family survived on instant noodles, bread dipped in coffee, and biscuits, getting by on the goodwill of relatives and church friends.

While Goh has found a new commission-based job getting people to sign up for government skills upgrading and training courses, his income fluctuates between 800 Singapore dollars ($594) and 2,800 Singapore dollars ($2,078), which is barely enough for their large family.

He perpetually finds himself cash-strapped.

To save money, the family has started eating only two meals a day – simple dishes like chicken soup with rice or potatoes.

Goh often skips meals or eats once a day so that his children can have a bigger share.

Where their fridge used to be stuffed with fresh fruit, chicken, pork and beef, soft drinks and snacks, all of this is now a luxury, and eating out is out of the question.

“It’s a huge pay cut, and honestly it’s one of the hardest and most demoralising periods of my life. Times are really tough,” said the 61-year-old who rents a two-room public housing flat in the northern part of the island.

Singapore is renowned for its food, and the wealthy city-state’s residents are known for their love of it. Experts say those who are struggling are often too embarrassed to tell anyone [File: Wallace Woon/EPA]

In a food paradise and wealthy city-state like Singapore, food insecurity is a phenomenon that exists primarily behind closed doors. But as elsewhere in the world, COVID-19 has hit the disadvantaged the hardest, typically the lowest earners in precarious jobs, who have few safety nets and insufficient wage and labour protections.

Earlier this year, a six-month study by local charity Beyond Social Services found that the median household income of families who sought the group’s help had plunged from 1,600 Singapore dollars ($1,187) before the COVID-19 pandemic to just 500 Singapore dollars ($371).

More worryingly, a second study, which detailed the effect of the pandemic on people renting government-owned flats between July and December 2020, found food insecurity was increasingly prolonged.

Residents told Beyond that they sometimes coped with the lack of food by filling themselves up with liquids or starches, buying cheap and filling items, and making choices based on financial considerations rather than nutritional value.

For instance, some families would eat only one meal a day or give their children coffee creamer in hot water because they could not afford formula milk. The report warned the issue could escalate into a serious public health matter, with links to increased mental stress and the development of chronic health conditions.

In 2019, Singapore ranked as the world’s most food-secure nation in the Global Food Security Index.

However, one in 10 Singaporeans experienced food insecurity at least once over 12 months, reported a study by the Singapore Management University’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation. Out of this, two in five experienced food insecurity at least once a month and many of these households did not seek food support, citing embarrassment, being unaware of what was available and the belief that others needed it more than themselves.

“To a regular Singaporean, food is a national pastime,” said Beyond’s Deputy Executive Director Ranganayaki Thangavelu. “But we may not realise how poorly others are eating, how they have to make difficult choices for each meal, and how food is just a necessity to sustain them. When they are confronted by this inequality daily, it wears them down over time.”