Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the Social Service Workforce in Malaysia
Tan Tiangchye and Vimala Crispin
In Malaysia, measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, including strict lockdowns and a Movement Control Order (MCO), caused significant disruption to the delivery of social welfare services. At a time when the lives and routines of vulnerable children and their families were upended, the shift in service priorities left children exposed to family violence, neglect and online exploitation, among other issues.
In this context, UNICEF Malaysia asked Child Frontiers and the Malaysian Association of Social Workers to conduct a qualitative study to document the experience of social service workers, focused on the impact of the pandemic on the delivery of child protection services and how they coped during the strict nationwide lockdown imposed from March 2020 and extended during the ensuing months.
The Child Frontiers team in Malaysia was led by Tan Tiangchye (Chye), who has been an associate since the first mapping of the Malaysian child protection and juvenile justice systems in 2010.
Reflecting on the current study, Chye explained:
I felt it was important to hear the experiences recounted directly by those who went through those unprecedented and harrowing first weeks. This is not third-party reporting. I was rather surprised to hear about the guilt of parents – that they had failed their children. And that some children felt they were actually better off at the boarding school. And the one that touched me when the administrator of a welfare home (which was running low on supplies) told the children that “they had to adjust and not eat so much anymore, or eat more rice without the usual dish accompaniment like they did during normal times”.
The study was conducted over a three-week period through a nationwide survey as well as online interviews primarily with NGO respondents involved in providing assistance and welfare services across the country. The information captured from individual observations and experiences was significant and consistent across the respondents. Although largely anecdotal, the findings also shed light on the obstacles faced by government social service workers, many of whom were reassigned to services and sectors deemed critical at the onset of the pandemic, for example, food assistance. Respondents were concerned that ‘shifted priorities’ may have inadvertently eclipsed the importance of child protection in a time of crisis.
In general, social service workers did not witness a significant increase in child protection cases during the initial lockdown phase although a handful of NGOs did record increases in cases of child abuse. Respondents stated that cases were less likely to come to the attention of social service workers due to mobility restrictions, lack of knowledge on reporting, social stigma or even ‘getting stuck at home with the abuser makes it impossible to lodge a report’.
Longstanding divides surfaced and socioeconomic disparities deepened with the pandemic. The economic shock that came on the already vulnerable communities, particularly the urban poor as well as asylum-seeking and migrant families, pushed them further into destitution. Respondents were concerned that the introduction of remote learning did not benefit children across the spectrum. The study also revealed important observations about how COVID-19 restrictions impacted children living with disabilities. Children with disabilities faced a unique set of challenges and were particularly affected by the abrupt disruption to their routines. Online lessons were especially challenging and while some remained in schools, those who returned to their families required undivided attention from their parents who were working from home. This resulted in increased tension and anxiety.
There was general consensus among respondents that no one was quite prepared for what happened. However, the spontaneous resourcefulness and spirit of innovation among service providers to ensure the continuity of services while under strict lockdown restrictions was repeatedly highlighted. Online service provision and programming using multimedia platforms became the norm, although there were reservations about its effectiveness in social service work.
Although the subsequent easing of restrictions allowed some leeway to proceed with service provision, the situation has yet to return to pre-pandemic working conditions. The key recommendation drawn from the interviews conducted is that child protection must remain a priority in parallel with other considerations in any public health crisis. The study also highlighted the need to increase investment in social services, including for mental health support for both communities and service provider staff. Strengthening government – civil society partnerships to support meaningful collaboration and effective service provision is fundamental.
"A lot of importance was accorded to food aid distribution but there was not enough advocacy on child protection."
NGO working with urban poor and indigenous communities.
“It finally sunk in that the staff were not prepared for something as sudden and big as the pandemic. It was utter confusion.”
NGO working with the urban poor
“Digital platforms cannot completely replace the dynamics of face-to-face relations.”
NGO working on domestic violence & violence against children
This study was conducted by Child Frontiers in partnership with the Malaysian Association of Social Workers for UNICEF Malaysia in August 2020.
The report, which has been posted online by UNICEF and disseminated through social work educators, may be accessed here: