The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

‘There is always more to be done to help vulnerable persons, low-income families’ - Caritas director

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 15 May 2022, 08:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

There is always more to be done to help vulnerable persons and low-income families in achieving a decent quality of life, NGO Caritas Director Anthony Gatt said.

In an interview with the Malta Independent on Sunday, Gatt elaborated further on the mini version of the Caritas research study for the Minimum Essential Budget for a Decent Living (MiniMEBDL) for the year of 2022, which showed a significant increase in food and medicine prices for low-income families.

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The study showed that families are spending over €100 more every month on food when compared to 2020, as well as elderly couples being the ones most susceptible to struggling with expenses for essentials, such as food and medicine.

In fact, compared to the 2020 study, the cost of the basic food basket increased by 17.75% yearly for two adults and two children, going up from €7,121.38 in 2020 to €8,385.60 in 2022, a €1,264.22 increase. Elderly couples saw a 25% increase in the food basket.

Elderly couples, who were the most affected, are seeing a 36.37% yearly cost increase for the medicine and healthcare basket.

Asked if these increases came as a surprise to the NGO, Gatt said that there was an expectation that there would be abnormal increases.

“I wouldn’t say it came as a shock, as food prices before the Covid-19 pandemic were already increasing by 5% each year. In a period of less than two years, between July 2020 and February 2022, there was a 19% increase for families with two adults and two children, and 25% for elderly couples. And this was in consideration of the pandemic, so it was not a surprise.”

Government has promised several initiatives to improve the living standards for citizens in general. Gatt was asked if the government could have done more to aid in food inflation and increases in basic essentials. He said that there is always more to be done to help vulnerable persons such as the elderly, and low-income families.

Gatt said that the wage supplement as well as supplementary increases in the recent Budget have all helped to curb the situation, and lower the impacts of what could be an acute problem. He also acknowledged the government's efforts to keep fuel prices as low as possible.

Gatt was asked if the government could have done more in subsidies for the medicine package of the study, especially when taking into consideration additional increases brought about by the pandemic restrictions, such as face masks, sanitizer bottles as well as basic paracetamol to treat mild symptoms. He said that it was important to have a stabilisation in prices so that additional expenses are not felt as much on the consumer.

Considering the current situation, with the government easing pandemic restrictions, one must take into consideration that people might not feel inclined to change face masks daily or use them at all, Gatt said. “There are vulnerable persons, such as the elderly, who are still careful, and are still having to deal with these expenses,” Gatt said.

This newsroom asked the director if the Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) to address the higher cost of living is adequate.

“Caritas and other NGOs have recognised that the COLA is not enough for those with a lower income, as a significant percentage of their income goes towards food and basic essentials, and so they are impacted in a greater way,” Gatt replied.

Gatt said that Caritas has given several proposals and are also in discussions with authorities so that these persons are further helped to achieve a better living income and work out a solution to do this.

“In one way or another we have to help them, either by increasing the minimum wage, or else by helping in supplementary aid to be able to ease these people’s worries so they can live a decent life,” Gatt said.

Gatt spoke about how elderly couples will always be the ones who fall behind, as they do not have access to the freedom of picking up jobs on the side, or study to obtain a better pay. He acknowledged that the government has done its best to continue to increase pensions and add more medicines in the government formulary, to help alleviate these expenses for the elderly. The food and medicine baskets in the research did not however, take into account serious illnesses or the fact that the elderly could be taking care of grandchildren, which increase their expenditure.

Minister for Social Justice and Solidarity, the Family and Children's Rights Michael Falzon had told The Malta Independent that pensioners have already received two increases to make up for a rise in the cost of living, reacting to a question about the Caritas survey.

“Every attempt of an increase will ease the difficulties the elderly face, in fact this study has been evaluated by politicians, both in the social sectors and the financial sectors, and they ask us for updates to compare the inflation and the situation on the ground. The government makes an effort to ensure that certain gaps are filled,” Gatt said.

Falzon had also said that certain recommendations made by Caritas to help persons with a low income have already been made or are in the process of being implemented. Asked about which recommendations have been implemented by government, Gatt said that the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) Scheme has been given attention, where government distributes certain food boxes every quarter of the year.

Gatt is recommending that these distributions are given as a form of vouchers or digital cash so that families can have a choice in what they are allowed to buy. Help in cases where persons are homeless and struggle to apply for certain social benefits or subsidies on renting homes was also implemented by government.

Gatt said that it is important to recognize the generosity of chain supermarkets which help with distributing food, which is still viable to foodbanks, to help low-income families.

“Malta is a small country, and it is not difficult to organize these initiatives. There could also be increased accessibility to Farmer’s Markets, where fruits and vegetables are cheaper,” Gatt said.

Asked if Caritas will carry out another research, this time taking into consideration the impact of the Ukrainian war, Gatt said that there are plans to publish another study in this regard, as well as conduct the MEBDL research more often than what is currently being done, which is that of every four years. He said that there is an obligation to look at this demand for the research.

Gatt was asked about the difficulties Caritas or other NGOs who strive to help those in need are facing, to which he replied that there are the realities where there are many migrant workers who are “the poorest of the poor,” struggling to make a decent living in the country.

“The situation with third country nationals is not regulated. We would like to see help being extended, in terms of food, jobs or otherwise, towards migrants from African or Middle Eastern countries. Unfortunately, they have not received as much of a welcome as the Ukrainian refugees,” Gatt said. He added that migrant workers are more likely to accept worse working conditions, such as long hours of work for a lesser pay, to be able to make a living.

Gatt pointed out that Caritas has opened a centre for adolescents suffering from substance abuse, which is currently receiving positive results. The collaboration of the NGO with parishes around the country and the Migrant’s Commission has also been given greater importance, so that sustainable projects are initiated for the distribution of food, clothing, and other essentials.

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