Cari makan, or procuring food, in any city is a mobility issue for most because we have to travel to the shops either by driving or walking or taking public transportation, or all of these. And for those who have mobility problems, they will need assistance to get their food. This is the reality of city life before the enforced physical distancing.
Back then I was not a regular user of home delivery services because I often ate out at the many reasonably priced restaurants serving delicious food, and bought groceries from supermarkets or wet markets variously located within 5-km radius from home in Petaling Jaya.
Yet, my transition to online food delivery services early on was easy and swift because of the Internet, and especially social media, which have become the preferred form of online advertisements amongst Malaysians.
I am lucky to have uninterrupted mobile phone connectivity as well as fairly stable Wifi at home. So far, I am a satisfied customer as the delivery services have been reliable and timely. The bulk pricing (of boxes of different varieties of vegetables) as well as the delivery fees, if applied, are also reasonable.
Two obvious downsides
I should also mention that at the beginning of the Movement Control Order (MCO) when things were still a bit chaotic, the supply chain of farm produce was seriously disrupted but thanks to many enterprising Malaysians a large amount of the food was saved. I too feel particularly proud to be part of this collective effort, as a customer.
However, I can already see two obvious downsides, one environmental and another social-cultural – not because they did not exist pre-MCO, but that somehow they were made invisible by the daily humdrums of city life.
For example, during the pre-MCO days when I was happily eating out at restaurants I was oblivious to the amounts of packaging, not to mention the arduous supply chain, involved to get the ingredients into the premises. But nowadays I have to deal with processing the groceries myself once they arrive at the front door; I just know better!
The social-cultural negative of the home food delivery business, also widely pervasive in traditional food distribution business, resides in the lack of equal job opportunity for women and persons with disabilities. Look around and you will see that the delivery motorcycle riders are mostly able-bodied young men.
My friends in academia, notably Dr Alicia Izharuddin of Harvard and Dr Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah of USM, have suggested the deepening inequalities between the haves and the have nots in this country during the pandemic, that are likely to cause greater social rifts well into the future, unless fast and drastic measures are taken to address them.
Therefore, it will bode well for the business sector to address these issues with or without COVID-19. Ironically, the pandemic is presenting us with some opportunities for great experimentation.
Food security key to survival
On the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to practise physical distancing at a time when we are living through the onslaught of digitalisation. Physical distancing and digitalisation are massively reorganising the fabric of society. Internet-enabled communication, an essential subset of digitalisation, is thriving during self-isolation because this technology is meant for virtual interaction, so businesses employing it will do well during the lockdown.
On the other hand, the pandemic is turning on some crisis-mode altruism of the good in people which I opine might not last as financial frustration takes over. The economic pressures to ease the lockdown are simply too great; and so we are heading for the status quo ante in many aspects of modern life.
On reflection, the bigger issue during a pandemic is that of survival, of which food security is key. This pandemic has compelled us to reconsider food security as a wider and longer term project. Living in a small home (e.g. balcony not bigger than 2.8 sq metre) I am forced to exercise maximum creativity in the spatial planning and use for an edible garden.
Certainly, the way forward is convincing ourselves to waste not and want not, as well as to grow food as much as possible. The choice is in our hands – keep them sanitised and green!
Nor “N.” Rasidah Hashim, PhD, is an independent researcher living and working in Malaysia. Her research interests span the domains of social equity, biodiversity and urban planning. N. is currently an affiliate at the Institute of Landscape Planning, Universität für Bodenkultur Wien, Austria.