Basic needs and the COVID-19 crisis

By Ng Kok Hoe, Teo You Yenn, Neo Yu Wei, Ad Maulod and Stephanie Chok

For people living in Singapore today, how will the ongoing COVID-19 crisis affect their capacity to meet basic needs?

In our research, through focus group discussions, we crafted this definition of basic standards of living in Singapore:

A basic standard of living in Singapore is about, but more than just housing, food, and clothing. It is about having opportunities to education, employment and work-life balance, as well as access to healthcare. It enables a sense of belonging, respect, security, and independence. It also includes choices to participate in social activities, and the freedom to engage in one’s cultural and religious practices. 

While the crisis is unfolding, it is premature to predict its long-term consequences, and the specifics of how various social groups–separated by income and wealth, age, or household type–will be differently affected. But reflecting on specific components of this definition now can still shed light on the profound impact of this public health crisis on various members of our society.

Food insecurity

The issue of food insecurity in Singapore has taken on greater urgency.

We have already seen the crisis affect patterns in the purchase, consumption, availability and prices of food. Depending on when and where one shops, supermarkets sometimes run out of lower-priced staples, and only ‘healthier’, pricier options are left on the shelves. Because lower-income families do not have the means to stock up on food supplies, they have to make daily trips to shops. This adds to time pressures that have intensified as children require more supervision at home due to school closures.

Illustration by Jolene Tan

Groups who work with low-income groups have seen a rise in requests for food rations. At the same time, food ration distributions, typically done through collection points at social service agencies and HDB void decks, have been thrown into uncertainty with new restrictions on gatherings and anxiety about face-to-face interactions. 

Housing: space, privacy, safety, security

Our appreciation of housing and, in particular, living space, will not be the same again after this. Public health directives for people to stay home and avoid contact across households raises the question of whether home is equally safe for everyone. They put under the spotlight overcrowded living conditions in the public rental housing system, where even large families are housed in small two-room flats, unrelated elderly tenants are required to share one-room flats with no bedrooms, and two households are accommodated in each three-room flat in the Interim Rental Housing scheme. Social workers as well as medical practitioners working in rental housing neighbourhoods have long observed that sickness tends to spread more easily among the children of large families who live in small flats. 

Living in close quarters, intensified in this time of business and school closures, also increases friction and conflict. Domestic violence is on the rise. Families already struggling with rental and other arrears will find their debt burdens worsened by this crisis. 

One pressing concern is how much of this impact will translate into homelessness. One outreach group has issued a call for individuals and organisations to offer temporary shelter, because of fears that homelessness shelters may be full.


In our ongoing research on basic needs for households with children, we conducted focus group discussions with parents. Discussions about education needs were often the most energetic part of the sessions, as parents expressed strongly that education is of highest priority. Participants told us that tuition is a basic need in Singapore today, because many if not most children need tuition to keep up in school. They openly voiced doubts that ‘every school is a good school’ and talked knowledgeably about the different types of tuition services at different price points and quality. 

This week, as schools close and learning moves online, inequalities have surfaced in new forms. Efforts to bridge the digital divide through the distribution of laptops and ensuring internet access is ongoing. But the divide extends beyond devices: the sudden shift to home-based learning (HBL) aggravates an already unlevel playing field, in terms of how children’s educational as well as leisure needs are supported at home, and how parents (especially women) negotiate work-life conflicts and the increased caregiving needs presented by HBL. 

Social participation

Illustration by Jolene Tan

In fulfilling the need for social participation–which our research shows is a basic need for human wellbeing–the new conditions in which we all find ourselves means we all take a hit. Yet, where some may find alternatives in Netflix and Zoom gatherings, others will find this need especially difficult to meet. 

The focus groups with older people in our first study alert us to the losses some groups will face. Older people talked about the importance of keeping in touch with family members over meals or festivities. They spoke of habits such as meeting friends at the coffee-shop; stopping for a drink and a chat at the hawker centre after shopping at the market; visiting the public library; attending courses at the community club; and travelling with family or friends to countries in the region. These were important for allowing them to feel a sense of belonging in society. Such activities have now been suspended. With friends and family also forbidden to visit, this will be an especially trying time for older members of society who live on their own

During this research, we have often been reminded that while ordinary Singaporeans can come to consensus about a baseline below which no one should fall, many in our society do indeed fail to meet those basic standards of living. 

In this time of a crisis that ostensibly affects every person in society, we must continually pay attention to the ways in which it affects different groups unequally, particularly when it comes to the meeting of basic needs. 

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