Sabah volunteers left in tears by plight of the poor

HUGS Project volunteers handing out food aid to the Bajau Laut community in Semporna where most of them are stateless. (Pic courtesy of HUGS Project)

KOTA KINABALU: The movement control order, necessary for stopping the Covid-19 crisis, has had far-reaching and life-threatening consequences for the poor, say volunteer bodies here.

While many in urban areas clamour for face masks or sanitisers and have stockpiled their own supply of groceries, others find their challenge in obtaining clean running water and electricity supply, let alone putting food on the table.

“They mostly depend on daily wages to survive and have no savings. They live in squatter areas, and include migrants and stateless people. The implications of the MCO are very different for them,” said Laili Basir, founder of the HUGS Project to help unfortunate groups.

Laili and other volunteer groups have encountered heart-wrenching stories of the suffering of poor people.

HUGS Project volunteers handing out food aid to the Bajau Laut community in Semporna where most of them are stateless. (Pic courtesy of HUGS Project)

Laili’s group also helps people in Sarawak and the Orang Asli in Pahang. Many of the people they met had lost their source of income after the MCO stay-at-home regime began.

These communities are unable to receive help from the many government incentives and aid programmes because they do not qualify.

“Their food supply has become depleted. We are worried they might resort to crime just to put food on the table for their children,” he told FMT.

Infants get no milk

A volunteer, who declined to be named, was told by an illegal immigrant family in interior Keningau that they had to feed their baby with “the white water froth” after cooking rice as a substitute for milk powder, which had run out.

“Many people have been contacting us to get milk for their babies. Some can only give condensed milk as a replacement.

HUGS Project volunteers handing out food aid to the Bajau Laut community in Semporna where most of them are stateless. (Pic courtesy of HUGS Project)

“The mothers say they are unable to breastfeed any more and that their husbands have no work because of the MCO. We’re all emotionally affected while trying to help such people,” she said to FMT.

Sherzali Asli, who heads the Sabah Human Rights Centre, said the MCO has exposed the reality of the income gaps that must be closed.

“Taking a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit well with the needs of the B40 group, migrants and undocumented stateless people living outside the system,” he said.

No access to internet

Sherzali said the poor internet access is also apparent among the low-income communities. They do not have the money to pay for regular internet data and do not get access to current information on Covid-19.

“The children can’t access online education programmes, widening the gap between them and upper to middle-class children.”

Formula milk powder supplies are also given to families with newborns in migrant communities in Sabah by the HUGS Project. (Pic courtesy of HUGS Project)

Sherzali said state authorities still do not know the extent of the coronavirus threat among undocumented and stateless people. “The government needs to directly engage these communities to do a fact-finding mission,” he said.

SHRC has been reaching out to slum areas here, namely Kampung Likas, Telipok, Inanam and neighbouring district Penampang.

Laili’s group covers northern Pulau Balambangan, Kota Belud, Sandakan and Semporna, and the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu. In Sarawak, they work in Sarikei, Sibu, Kuching, Betong, Miri, Samarahan, Mukah, Sematan, Sri Aman, Kabong, Bintulu and Saratok.

“We only give aid to those not included in the government aid system. Priority is given to only those who are really in need,” Laili said.

Sherzali and Laili agreed the government had done a tremendous job but urged large companies and the well-off to help shoulder the burden of helping the marginalised.

Volunteers of Sabah Human Rights Centre arranging food aid for poor people in and around Kota Kinabalu. (Pic courtesy of Sabah Human Rights Centre)

“The help should also go to interior and squatter areas. People who live in expensive houses never think of the suffering of these communities. The city elites should also contribute to feed hungry mouths,” they said.

Good Shepherd Services senior programme officer Dwana Kosidi Andrew said the group depends on the generosity of benefactors but understands their limitations as monetary contributions are a challenge due to the MCO.

Residents in a slum area in Kota Kinabalu getting food from the Sabah Human Rights Centre. (Pic courtesy of Sabah Human Rights Centre)

Empowering the marginalised

“Most of our activities are geared towards making the communities shelve the ‘wait-and-see’ mentality. And we have to be creative with these initiatives,” she said.

The group has bought up local food produce from the community that cannot be sold in markets and for distribution to university students here unable to cope with the high cost of living.

“We also buy vegetables from the Kundasang highlanders unable to sell their vegetables because of the travel restrictions. The vegetables are pickled and distributed to college students,” Andrew said.

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