As COVID-19 affected tens of millions of people in 2020, the stringent lockdowns worldwide raised numerous health, economic and social challenges. Malaysia was certainly not spared.
Despite the severe impact on underserved local communities amid the first series of nationwide lockdowns, RYTHM Foundation reached out to several local partners and stakeholders to address these communities’ needs and identify approaches to tackling the issues.
As a result, the Foundation organised two symposiums – “Addressing Community Needs in Malaysia During the Pandemic” – in February and September 2021.
The symposiums brought together experts from civil society organisations (CSOs), NGOs, and professionals from the education, health, and finance sectors. They deliberated on six issues: Health and Sanitisation, Gender-based Violence (Women and Children), Education, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Stateless Children, and Economic Stability.
The virtual seminars served as a functional platform to exchange ideas and develop a comprehensive, practical framework for measures to address the diverse needs of the different communities that surfaced after the pandemic hit.
The meetings called on the stakeholders to explore the challenges within the identified focus areas holistically and propose recommendations to improve the lives of vulnerable communities, notably Malaysia’s bottom 40% of income earners, also known as the B40 group.
Over 500,000 middle-income group households (M40) have reportedly fallen into the B40 category since the pandemic’s beginning. Last September, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the shift represented 20% of the M40 group.
Based on the symposiums’ findings, RYTHM has developed a Position Paper on the critical issues uncovered. The Foundation proposes medium- to long-term solutions in the paper to the local government in the hope that the recommendations are adopted into the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups.
RYTHM Chairperson Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran said in her message accompanying the report, “We need to ramp up our efforts to reach the most vulnerable communities. The private sector, civil society organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders must complement the government’s efforts. Only time will tell if we will ever fully recover (from the pandemic), but we must ensure that possibility.
“It is my heartfelt wish that by presenting this position paper, we can move forward taking proactive action to create the most benefit for our communities,” she added.
The Pandemic and Malaysia’s Underserved Indigenous Communities
One of the crucial issues detailed in the post-symposium report encompasses the challenges faced by Malaysia’s indigenous communities, including the Orang Asli, during the pandemic.
Until last October, only about 64% (92,186) of the 144,180 eligible Orang Asli were reportedly fully vaccinated despite efforts to educate and raise awareness about the importance of vaccination amongst the communities.
Panellists at the second symposium agreed that the indigenous needed recognition as a vulnerable community and deserved more inclusion in discussions about their needs.
They also established that the indigenous had the same right to healthcare as any other community. “The (preceding) lockdowns had caused tremendous stress and concern to the health and livelihood of these communities. The vulnerable were susceptible to infectious disease, and the pandemic showed the inconducive living conditions of the indigenous community.”
While the meetings unearthed the hardships faced by the indigenous communities amid the pandemic, they also called to attention the significant challenges afflicting them. Poverty, infrastructure deficits, low maternal health, and childhood malnutrition are substantial causes of health problems within the communities.
“Poverty is one of the root causes of health problems in indigenous communities,” the paper said. “Tackling the various types of poverty will help the communities overcome most of their health issues.”
Urgent recommendations included improving the basic infrastructures in villages and formulating a post-pandemic recovery plan to help these communities rebuild their lives.
The government is also encouraged to engage with NGOs, CSOs, universities and the private sector to educate, disseminate information, and collaborate in relief activities that require immediate attention.
“The NGOs, CSOs, universities and corporations can play an essential role in being the helpline between the government and the indigenous communities through the pandemic and should be engaged to continue their work in providing support post-pandemic, be it socially or economically.”
Another recommendation promotes enhancing trust and interaction between the communities and authorities. “The most effective way to ensure the indigenous communities get vaccinated against COVID-19 is to educate and give accurate information about the symptoms, dangers, preventive measures and SOPs.”