KUALA LUMPUR - On the 15th floor of a shabby, low-rent apartment block in north Kuala Lumpur, Justin Cheah stepped out of a rickety elevator with a bulging bag of groceries and headed for the unit flanked by a dusty shrine to the elephant-headed god Ganesh, the "remover of obstacles."
Cheah is lending the deity a hand. The groceries, and a 10-kilogram bag of rice, are for one of the hundreds of new families the charity he runs, Kechara, has been helping to feed since the coronavirus pandemic sent Malaysia into a stifling lockdown in mid-March that has yet to be lifted in full.
Kechara and other food banks operating across Malaysia's capital and the rest of the country of 32 million say they have been coping with a surge in demand since the start of the lockdown, or “Movement Control Order" (MCO). More than ever they are extending a critical lifeline to millions of families left wanting by a chronically underfunded and overstretched social safety net.
"If we did not get this food, I would not have enough to survive and I would not have enough money left to pay for my children's education," said Vany Ramasamy, who greeted Cheah in the red shirt and navy-blue trousers of the municipal workers who sweep the city's streets from dawn to dusk.
The lockdown has thrown more than 300,000 Malaysians out of work as of May and pushed the country's unemployment rate up to 5.3 percent, a height it has not hit since the late 1980s, according to the government's latest figures. The World Bank says those numbers will climb higher before the worst is over.
An untold number more, like Ramasamy, are among the newly underemployed — those who still have jobs but can no longer work as much as before. She and her husband, also a municipal worker, have had their hours cut in half, slashing their combined monthly income to just $250 for a family of nine, including six children and a grandmother.
"I'm very worried because it costs a lot to support everyone in the household," she said with a faint but resolute smile. "Every cent counts."
Each of Kechara's families gets a 35-kilogram bag of dry goods to help see them through the month. Every afternoon it also sets up a cornucopia of surplus produce outside a few of the apartment blocks in the area, circling back to each in rotation. The tenants on the charity's list line up and stuff a shopping bag each with eggplant, carrots, apples and other fresh fruits and vegetables in turn. Under the lockdown, the list has grown longer.
Between the home deliveries and produce lines, Kechara is now serving some 1,500 families regularly, three times as many as before the lockdown.
"It's like a sharp rise in a short space of time, so you are looking at a very steep canyon here, whereas previously we were increasing bit by bit," said Cheah.
Donations have also picked up, but not quite as fast as demand.
Before the lockdown, the Lost Food Project, a food bank serving greater Kuala Lumpur and the city of Johor Bahru in the south, also got few new calls from partner charities asking for more help.
"This changed during the MCO," said general manager Muhammad Syazwan Mokhtar. All of a sudden, "we've had distress calls from all over the place."
The Malaysia Food Bank Foundation, which helps support the Lost Food Project, Kechara and others, was serving over half-a-million families before the lockdown across the country, including the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Since March, CEO Abdul Wahab Long said, the number has "more than doubled."
The largest spikes have been in the major cities, driven by migrant laborers from the provinces stuck in place by the MCO with little or no work. While easing lockdown rules have seen many return home or start working again, the ranks turning to Malaysia's food banks are still swollen.
The government has done much to help. The World Bank says the various aid packages given out during the pandemic have added up to nearly 20% of the country's gross domestic product, more than in most developing countries.
But a dearth of public spending on social protection programs leading up to the pandemic had left Malaysia ill prepared for the shock. Richard Record, an economist with the bank's country team, said the government regularly spent roughly only 1% of GDP on such programs, "which is pretty low even for a middle-income economy, let alone for one that aspires to become a high-income and developed economy."
The country's safety net may cover a wide swath of the population, he said, "but it's very thin."
That safety net has forced Danny Khaw, another of Kechara's new charges, to keep working at the age of 78. "Now everywhere pain," he said, giving his old joints a weary shake. .From his crumbling row house overlooking the highway, Khaw runs a one-man delivery service for hire. But with the economy in a deep slump, his rusty lorry has put in few miles during the lockdown. The bags of free groceries "helps me a lot," he said, but go only so far. "Sometimes I eat eggs only. Sometimes I don't eat.”