28 May 2021
Vulnerable communities of Malaysia and COVID-19
The article sets out to identify sections of the society deemed to be particularly vulnerable in the current COVID-19 crisis. Ground level sources of vulnerabilities are highlighted among the marginalized communities, along with the role of government, private organizations, and NGOs. A number of stimulus packages including wage subsidies and cash support have been launched by the government in order to mitigate the harsh economic impact of the pandemic on poor and underprivileged groups.
Who is vulnerable and why?
Marginalized and migrant communities were the hardest hit in the world over at the onset of COVID-19 pandemic. Already in a volatile socio-economic state, these communities are considered to be the most vulnerable in the present crisis. Let’s have a closer look at sections of society in Malaysia that have been adversely affected by the pandemic.
Indigenous communities constitute 13.8% of the Malaysian population. Lack of awareness and accessibility of timely aid is making these communities more vulnerable than others. Quite ironically though, the Indigenous People (IPs) of the country showed a quiet resilience on the face of the raging pandemic through their traditional knowledge of solutions and oftentimes self-isolating and barricading their villages from the outside world. For instance, the Iban folks in Batu Niah started levying a RM2,000 fine for anyone entering their longhouse dwellings. They also barred their children from mingling with others and collected food items from the nearby forests.
However, like all other marginalized communities, it has been a challenging time for the indigenous communities as well. Primarily living in the rural terrains, their sustenance comes from forest supplies. Orang Asli, apparently the poorest of indigenous people of Malaysia, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Based on the sharing of experience from an Orang Asli activist, the major obstacles come in the form of bureaucracy which hampers the smooth delivery of resources like food allowance to people living in far flung interiors of the country.
Communication loopholes and confusion are bound to happen in emergency situations such as the present COVID-19 pandemic. Some indigenous communities have fled to forests as the COVID-19 cases started to rise. Some of the tribal villages even blocked entry to their villages to prevent themselves from the deadly infection.
Asia houses 40% of the migrant workers. They constitute 3.5% of the global population and form the backbone of any developing nation’s workforce. This holds true for Malaysia as well. There are around 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia at present. As per a code blue report, there are 2 to 4 million additional workers in the country who are currently undocumented.
As the pandemic started to rage across the globe, the Malaysian government on 18 March 2020, imposed a Movement Control Order (MCO) under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act, 1988. The necessary mechanisms were implemented for smooth functioning of the orders. Yet, those on the lower rung of the socio-economic strata were disproportionately affected compared to their well off counterparts. With months rolling under the alarming effects of the pandemic, the migrant communities started to face job loss, food insecurity, fear of detention, deportation and higher chances of being infected by the virus. Women migrant workers are at double the risk of abuse and infection, because of gender based violence and their responsibility for getting food to their families in times of crises.
On 1 May 2020, Malaysian authorities rounded up hundreds of migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur who were encouraged to come forward for swab tests. The cramped and unhygienic detention centres where these workers were housed with almost no social distancing norms in place, further lead to COVID-19 clusters. However, the government on 11 February 2021, announced that it will offer free vaccination to foreign workers living in the country in an effort to make Malaysia COVID-free.
The frontliners worldwide appeared to be our real warriors fighting this difficult battle with all their might and empathy. However, it is silently creating havoc on their physiological and psychological health. Doctors, nurses, midwives, medical assistants, matrons, and other healthcare workers of Malaysia serving COVID-19 patients are often reported to be impacted emotionally, physically, and mentally.
According to research listed on NCBI, 39.1% of burnouts among healthcare workers is work related, while 17.4% is patient related, and 53.8% is attributed to personal issues. This is mainly because oftentimes frontliners work beyond their human limits to tackle the surge in COVID-19 cases. Erratic behaviour from patient’s families, lack of contact with their own families, long hours at risk-laden environments wearing heavy PPE kits all day, and the surmounting fear of getting infected are some of the prominent factors attributing to high anxiety levels among the frontliners.
A WHO study states that the health care system of Malaysia which is run by the government and concurrently served by the private sector, has been successful in covering its population of 32 million under the Universal Health Coverage. The country recorded 1,400 fatalities and 381,813 confirmed COVID-19 cases till 22 April 2021. As much as 1105,890 doses of vaccine have been administered until 15 April 2021. According to a Code Blue report, a total of 166,363 out of 500,000 frontliners in Malaysia have gotten their first dose of vaccination as of 8 March 2021.
The Government has announced a number of stimulus packages and relief plans over the months to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 among vulnerable communities. However, the ongoing crisis calls for a more robust involvement of both the private and public sector players. Coupled with the practical knowledge of the NGOs and civil society, the country needs to chalk out a well drafted plan that acts on timely coordination of multiple players.