From Hamdan Abdul Majeed
Covid-19 took more than just lives. It uncovered social and economic inequalities, evident in the public housing programmes in Malaysia, or PPRs.
There are vast inequalities in social infrastructure that need reform. Of particular concern is the widening gap between the performance of students from PPRs and their peers outside the system.
These concerns largely focus on the state of the mental health in young Malaysians at the PPRs, who are bridled with economic anxiety and the lack of suitable learning infrastructure while journeying through childhood in physically challenging environments.
Social and physical aspects of the residential environment are important determinants of physical and mental health, especially for people living in poverty. Juggling chores, work and education responsibilities does impact children’s mental health.
The major learning loss experienced due to the pandemic is highly likely to impact social mobility and poverty exit, leading to enormous lifetime implications not just for children, but also eventually the Malaysian economy.
Mental health challenges usually manifest at an early age, driven by environmental factors at PPRs.
Policy changes need to be put in place to enable early detection of mental health cues, as the precarity of the situation stems from initiating treatment after the illness intensifies.
A solution is to build capacity among social workers and introduce para-counsellors with regular and direct contact with these children and equip them with the relevant tools to be first responders.
The lack of learning infrastructure at PPRs is another factor that needs attention. It is not just devices, but overall poor connectivity in the buildings.
Compounding the problem, the students’ cramped living conditions are not conducive to learning. Most PPRs do not have comfortable and safe spaces to learn, collaborate and study; those that are appropriately furnished and equipped with computers and learning resources are scarce.
While NGOs do work with some PPRs to obtain a conducive space that allows for guided learning, macro-level policies and programmes are needed when planning the built environment of PPRs.
The built environment plays a central role in correlating physical activity and mental health. Critical assessment of the built environment to accommodate physical activities and create safe social spaces is vital to improving mental health and wellness among children living in the PPRs’ confined space.
To realise this, spatial planning is key. Agile policies can accelerate the relevant ministries and agencies to work together in redesigning PPRs to create social amenities – break-out spaces for residents, essentially communal spaces that allow them to still function as an inclusive community and society. This must also include spaces for children to learn-play-grow under adult supervision.
Think City, through its Rights to the City programme, has set up a collaborative platform supported by Citi Foundation that works to improve public housing liveability.
The efforts also strive to positively impact PPR children in their education and mental health wellness.
No child should be left behind, therefore, a series of much-needed conversations will be held via Malaysia’s first public housing liveability conference taking place on June 16.
Hamdan Abdul Majeed is managing director of Think City, a social purpose organisation with the mission of making cities more people-friendly, resilient and liveable.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.