Tuesday, March 2

Acting in unison to beat Covid-19

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The vaccine will be the game changer in this war. — File photo

THE dangerous virus has penetrated the longhouses in Sarawak now – my worst fears. At the time of writing, some 100 of such communities in the state are in danger of being overwhelmed by the enemy.

The police in Sibu Division, the worst hit region, are most concerned about having insufficient personnel to handle the invasion at the level of the longhouse. In this connection, it is good news that soldiers and other security personnel would be roped in to help with the fight against the unseen enemy in the state; it is hoped that enough forces will be deployed to the rural areas.

I hope the leaders of these longhouse communities will all pull together to help the authorities beat the Covid-19 pandemic, putting aside political distancing for the time being.

For those houses which have not been infected, however, the people there must be prepared to isolate themselves from strangers, deeming any visitor to be a potential carrier of Covid-19. In that way, the virus can be beaten soon.

As soon as the vaccine is available, these are the people who should be considered among the first to be vaccinated. Their leaders must ensure that this will be done as a matter of urgency.

Together, the combined forces (police, army, and the locals) should be able to ensure that everyone strictly observes the SOPs: social distancing (physical separation); regular washing of hands; use of sanitiser; wearing of face masks; avoidance of crowds of people.

Tests, tests, tests, and contact tracing

At the level of the longhouse, however, the SOPs should be somewhat relaxed. That requires some paradigm shift on the part of the enforcers of SOPs by taking into consideration the way of life of the people. The longhouse people will tell you how to go about observing their unwritten protocols.

Send anyone who needs to consult a doctor or a dresser at the earliest opportunity for tests, tests and tests. I’m sure the health authorities have thought of all these measures but may have insufficient numbers of trained personnel at any particular time or place, or are waiting for instructions from the higher authority in Kuching before acting. This is where the volunteers from the longhouses may be of real help. Recruit volunteers as part of the team of security and professional health workers, after these locals have undergone certain appropriate proper training. Pay them an honorarium.

At this juncture of the war, don’t talk about the costs of these operations; rather, think in terms of diverting some money earmarked for mega projects. For example, as a matter of priority, a pinch from the RM24 billion earmarked for the construction of the ‘Great Wall’ will go a long way to finance the operations to finish off the virus. The wall can wait.

Above measures constitute the main weapon that we have at the moment. Until the vaccine is made available to everybody, we have to rely on the current strategies of the State Disaster Management Committee in terms of waging an all- out war on the common enemy. We shall overcome the virus.

Normally, enforcers of the SOPs take the strict view that ignorance of the law is no excuse. However, with regard to the longhouse people, any apparent violation of the SOPs, especially by the women of the longhouse, should be seen from another angle as well: their daily way of life. Not every case is to be treated as a deliberate violation of the SOP. Resorting to legal action under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342), would be the last, in certain circumstances.

Three months ago, I wrote about the extreme difficulty on the part of the longhouse dwellers to observe strict social distancing (which is the same thing as physical separation). The nature of the physical set-up of the building and the way of life of the people explains the constraints. It is next to impossible to restrict, let alone control, the inhabitants from going out of the building even if you put several policemen or soldiers on guard round the clock at every longhouse. There are a few thousands of such communities. The best that the police can do is to put a roadblock at the entrance to a longhouse which is accessible by road. What about the one by the river, without an alternative route (road)?

How do you stop the inhabitants from going out of their common house so that they can go out to their farms, to tap rubber, or to harvest fresh fruit bunches of the oil palm (those who have planted the oil palms)? Or from Ngabas prau, nani/ngabas bubu, mandi, nginti, mansai, ngasu, or ngambi kayu? These are essential services as far as they are concerned.

Work-related permits 

With regard to the work-related permits to travel, the JKKK should be empowered to issue such permits. During the Emergency, the locals should be empowered to do so under supervision of the police, of course. This assumes that Act 342 above is no longer adequate. This will help ease pressure on the police stations. Avoid the situation – crowds and queues – as was seen in Sibu early this week.

Many longhouse dwellers still rely on the river for travel to and from the nearest bazaar and they normally use longboats. And a longboat is normally full of people going shopping or selling produce. How does one ensure physical distancing?

Even those who have cars always have their vehicles filled to capacity, and in a car crammed to the roof with cousins, not even masks will be of much use. If masks are available in the first place, that is.

Traditional social distancing 

In the bad old days of smallpox, people moved out of the longhouse to live in their farm houses (langkau umai) or built temporary houses (dampa), and only returned to the main house when an epidemic was over. I am not recommending such a move en masse, but would suggest that anybody from the longhouse who wishes to isolate himself or his family to a farm house should be allowed to do so without fuss. That was the strategy adopted when the longhouse was ‘hot’ (angat). That was first class physical distancing all right. How many had managed to survive this way or died, no one knew or wanted to discuss.

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