Orang Asli losing income and food security . . .
The Orang Asli, Malaysia’s ‘original people,’ saw their first confirmed case of COVID-19, a three-year-old child, in late March. The infant’s family lives in a village near a popular tourist destination. The village, and another nearby with a suspected case, were put under immediate lockdown. These two lockdowns and the central government’s March 18 Movement Restriction Order (MRO), set to end on April 28, have seen many Orang Asli lose stable incomes as most rely on daily wages from small-scale merchant activities or work in trades. The MRO has encouraged many Orang Asli to return to their villages, and others to move further into their customary forests to forage for food.
“[We] will either die by the virus or die by hunger” . . .
The poverty rate among Orang Asli before the spread of the novel coronavirus sat at 30 per cent, compared to the national average of 0.4 per cent, contributing to higher than national rates of malnutrition and disease. With memories of measles outbreaks last year still fresh, some Orang Asli communities began self-isolating and blocking roads to their villages last month, even prohibiting community members living in cities from returning home. However, harvesting food from their traditional forests in some places is difficult as monocrop plantations (durian or palm oil) and logging operations have taken over. These challenges provide context for one elder’s comment that “[We] will either die by the virus or die of hunger.”
NGO’s stepping up . . .
Similar to Indigenous peoples in Canada, the Orang Asli are a heterogeneous group – some of whom are not government-recognized – with dozens of unique languages and cultures. Malaysia has one of the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia (5,072 as of April 15), yet only a few Orang Asli have tested positive so far. Underlying health, economic, political, and social inequalities and challenges mean that an outbreak could disproportionately affect this vulnerable segment of Malaysian society. With outdated laws (e.g. Aboriginal Peoples Act, 1954) and generally weak governance structures to address Orang Asli concerns, many non-government organizations have been working to fill gaps by raising money and distributing food. We will be watching to see what other policies and programs the Orang Asli, the national government, and NGOs develop moving forward.
- Center for Orang Asli Concerns: Covid-19 update on Orang Asli
- Channel News Asia: Malaysia's Indigenous people flee into forests to escape coronavirus
- Free Malaysia Today: Orang Asli in the dark about Covid-19, say activists