Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Putting a face to the ‘ghost’ of Covid-19 in Sarawak interior

Rural communities require a different approach when it comes to disseminating information on the virus and how to combat it.

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Those venturing from their homes these days are familiar with the litany of procedures that await upon arrival at their destination.

Hands dip into pockets and handbags for phones used to scan the QR codes displayed at the entrance, and foreheads are presented for temperature checks.

A squirt of hand sanitiser, a quick tug to make sure that face masks are in place, and most would be ready to go.

Such measures, now part of daily life, provide material reminders for many of the gravity of Covid-19, a virus which has claimed over 1,300 lives in the country so far.

But in rural areas far from busy office buildings and glitzy malls, there is little to evoke an understanding of the outbreak even more than a year after the fact.

“They see the virus as a ghost because it is something that humans cannot see.”

The urban-rural divide is especially prominent in Sarawak, where geographical barriers complicate efforts to reach remote communities.

Social anthropologist Poline Bala warned that it would be difficult to contain the spread of infections in such areas given the poor healthcare system there if authorities fail to come up with an inclusive response.

“Many people in rural areas, they know that Covid-19 is a disease in general. But they have little understanding of the virus itself, and some may have no idea how it is transmitted.

“They see the virus as a ghost because it is something that humans cannot see,” she told MalaysiaNow.

Sarawak is currently struggling with a surge in new cases which for some time has kept it among the states with the most infections reported each day.

Yesterday, it recorded a high of 960 new cases out of 2,551 reported across the country.

Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said last week that the increase in cases reported in the state was due to the addition of community clusters including at long houses. Contributing factors included large events and social activities including funerals, weddings and other celebrations.

Poline acknowledged a lack of compliance with SOPs within the community but said this reflects their struggle to understand the measures.

“There is a WhatsApp group on Covid-19 in Sarawak, but that group is basically for people in urban areas to talk about the disease. What about the people in rural areas?”

In such places, she said, an explanation of the science behind the disease from a cultural perspective would be critical to curbing the outbreak.

She also spoke of an urban bias in the government’s policies and their implementation.

“If you look at all of the policies clearly, there has always been an urban bias whether in social or economic policies or in terms of technological development.

“These are the gaps that exist between the rural and urban communities, including in terms of health. The lack of basic facilities, the high poverty rate, the huge geographical diversity and environmental conditions, the high illiteracy rate – these are among the big issues that divide them.”

“There has always been an urban bias whether in social or economic policies or in terms of technological development.”

In Sarawak, she said, almost 60% of the population lives in rural areas.

Instead of focusing on technical measures to curb infections in the state, she suggested that the government emphasise clearer communication which would help everyone understand the need to practise the SOPs.

Poline, a professor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said this could be done through the distribution of educational kits in addition to strong engagement with communities including on the safe use of face masks and the importance of frequent hand washing.

“Educational kits should be rolled out in different languages and in different forms, on different social media platforms – whatever is available,” she said.

“Communicating through banners is effective as it helps remind people to take care of themselves. Information can be in the form of drawings, or in audio form which can be passed around,” she added.

She warned that there are limits to approaching the pandemic from a purely epidemiological perspective.

“We need to consider religious feelings, location, educational backgrounds,” she said.

“If we’re talking about a new norm, a norm is something that you inculcate. You don’t use the police to inculcate a norm. We need to move from policing to community-based surveillance.”

She praised the government for its efforts so far but said a more conducive framework is needed.

“The degree of success of SOPs depends on the people’s behavioural chances. The only way forward is through proper education.”

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