No money to pay rent and eat: Virus-hit Maldives economic woes bite hundreds in capital

Hundreds in Maldives capital have sought government help to pay rent and support their families as the financial strain from salary cuts and job losses stemming from the coronavirus pandemic takes a heavy toll on people living in one of the world’s densely populated cities.

Fathimath Yumna, a deputy minister for gender and social services, told reporters Monday that families struggling with income shortfalls were on the rise.

So far 220 people have reported being homeless or unable to pay rent, she said.

It was a drastic rise from the three individuals that sought government help in the third week of April, when the authorities placed the capital on lockdown.

“Many people have been forced out of their homes, either because they were not able to pay rent, or their families are no longer able to support them financially,” Yumna said.

Many have asked the authorities to allow them to relocate to their native islands, but have struggled to get the permit from the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

The homeless have been provided temporary shelters.

The social services ministry has set up a hotline — 1412 — for struggling families to report evictions and financial constraints.

The government has also submitted a bill to the parliament in a bid to prevent evictions. The proposed law, if passed, will also mandate the government to provide food and shelter to the homeless.

With the rapid development made possible by a tourism boom in the past four decades, Male has seen a drastic increase in migration from all across the archipelago of 1,192 coral islands.

As hundreds relocate to the capital every year seeking better education, employment and healthcare, the limited space has created a housing crisis in the 6.8 square kilometre island-city. Many live in cramped apartments with their extended families, pooling their incomes to pay the skyrocketing rentals and make ends meet.

Since March, many have reported job losses and income shortfalls.

The government has responded with an MVR 2.5 billion stimulus plan that seeks to save jobs by giving emergency funds to struggling businesses to meet their working capital needs.

Those that lose jobs are also eligible to get an income support allowance of MVR 5,000 ($323) per month.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

All international airlines have suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 1,841.

Seven deaths have been reported and 608 have made full recoveries.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

Photo: Sun Online

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