‘The whole of Penang is under lockdown – except here’

Senior citizens line up to receive the free food given each day at 11.30am and 5.30pm.

GEORGE TOWN: There is a buzz of activity in the air at the low-cost Rifle Range flats in Air Itam where a crowd of some 50 people mills about, waiting for the distribution of free food from the local assemblyman’s office.

The smell of fried rice rises from a stall set up between two blocks, in front of which a line is already forming as a woman hands out numbers.

Most of the people appear old. Some leave a one-metre gap between themselves and the next person but others don’t. For the most part, their face masks are the only sign of the fact that the flats, like the rest of the country, are under partial lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Soon, there are about 100 people in the queue which snakes its way to the back of the flat blocks.

“I am standing far away,” a silver-haired lady insists, clutching her shopping bag as she waits for her turn.

She is one of some 15,000 residents who live in the 3,660 units forming the nine humble blocks. Built in 1969, the flats are Penang’s largest low-cost government housing project and the oldest such complex in the country.

One of the blocks at the Rifle Range flats in Air Itam, Penang.

Right now, they appear to be stuck in time as the rest of the nation hunkers down under the government’s movement control order (MCO).

Loh Eng Kim, who has lived at the flats since 1971, said the authorities are not always there to monitor the situation.

“There is a joke among our neighbours,” he added.

“The whole of Penang is under lockdown except for the Rifle Range flats.”

Long lines for the free food snake between flat blocks.

According to Loh, the long queues began earlier this month when the local assemblyman’s office and well-meaning people started handing out hot food for lunch and dinner.

Sometimes, the lines continue for at least an hour, he said.

“I am so afraid that an old lady might just faint in one of these queues, and the whole of Rifle Range will be put under curfew like Masjid India.”

The landmark area in Kuala Lumpur was placed under enhanced MCO last week as the government battles to contain the spread of Covid-19.

The Rifle Range flats in Air Itam, Penang.

Loh, who is the former chairman of the Rifle Range village security and development committee, said no one goes hungry as most of the residents receive aid from both the state and federal governments.

However, he has reservations about the manner in which the aid is given.

“Some of the people staying here are in their 70s and they live alone. They come down alone and get their food. Why not send it to their homes directly?”

He added that not everyone who joins the queues is from the flat complex.

When contacted, Kebun Bunga assemblyman Jason Ong said the police constantly monitor the area to ensure social distancing.

Residents wait at a bus stop outside the flat complex.

“The police are there, and if the need arises, they can carry out arrests,” he said, adding that the people must wear face masks in order to receive the food.

He also said the village security and development committee is doing its best to make sure people keep a safe distance from each other when giving out the free food.

For now, though, it looks as if the struggle to enforce the MCO at the flats will continue as long as the bulk of residents believe, as does one man in his 60s, that the definition of social distancing is “keeping an arm’s length from my friend at the bus stop”.

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