Malaysians struggling to make ends meet during a worsening coronavirus outbreak have hoisted white flags outside their homes in a desperate plea for help that has swept the country.
Authorities imposed a second strict nationwide lockdown last month in response to a surge in Covid cases, and many low-income workers who live hand-to-mouth have lost their jobs again after a ban on non-essential businesses.
The flags – often little more than strips of cotton or T-shirts – have sprung up outside homes of the needy around the country in the past week, prompting an outpouring of sympathy and donations from the public.
“This month I have not paid the rent … I am afraid that I might not be able to find another place to stay in this critical situation,” said Tilda Kalaivani, a single mother of four.
The 37-year-old, who was forced to stop working as a florist after the closure of all non-essential businesses, said she at first felt “too shy” to hang a flag outside her home on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“But facing such difficulty, if I don’t say anything, people won’t know – and I don’t know what will happen.”
The #benderaputih – “white flag” in the Malay language – movement has expanded rapidly online, with social media groups set up to let people in need post appeals for help.
Members of the public are bringing food to households that have signaled their distress, while businesses are also donating, with a noodle-maker sending workers to deliver food in the worst-hit Selangor state outside Kuala Lumpur.
Popular Malaysian rapper Altimet also pledged to donate food in a message to his nearly 400,000 Instagram followers.
Only essential businesses, such as supermarkets and medical clinics, have been allowed to operate since last month and the government has come under fire from the public for not providing sufficient aid.
Growing desperation is reflected in rising suicides – police recorded more than 450 in the first five months of this year, compared to 631 for all of 2020.
Referring to the figures, Malaysia’s top health official, Noor Hisham Abdullah, said the pandemic had had a “huge impact” on people’s mental health, especially those cut off from support networks of friends and family.
Opposition lawmakers say the movement shows the government’s efforts to contain Covid are failing and have launched their own black flag campaign calling on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to resign and lift Malaysia’s state of emergency.
Charles Santiago of the opposition Democratic Action Party said he and his staff helped dozens of low-income workers who had hoisted white flags in his Selangor constituency.
“Every one of them has lost their jobs,” when the latest lockdown was implemented, he said.
There is little sign of Malaysia’s latest outbreak slowing despite the lockdown – officials reported more than 7,600 cases and more than 100 deaths on Tuesday.
“Before people had some savings, but now all of that is gone,” said Santiago. “They have hit desperation point.”