Volunteers from Cahaya Society distributing food packs to those in need.

KOTA KINABALU: When the Covid-19 pandemic started, Sandakan-based NGO Cahaya Society was forced to halt operations of its Alternative Learning Centres for stateless children in that district.

Since January 2019, they had been teaching children in the community basic reading, writing and counting on top of music, and other skills.

Asrin Utong, 25, and 20 others have been volunteering at the NGO to teach the stateless children from 10 different villages in the district.

Speaking to FMT, he said the movement restrictions had significantly hampered their operations.

“Even though it has been a long time without classes, the welfare of the students’ families is still being taken care of,” he said, adding that the NGO has been distributing food packs to ensure that they had enough food throughout the pandemic in Sabah.

“We also offer counselling sessions to the students and families to handle mental health issues,” he said.

When the movement restrictions went full force, many NGOs had come on to social media to complain of food supply cuts, especially among Sabah’s sizeable undocumented and stateless communities.

Asrin, better known as Rien, said 937 families had received food aid consisting of rice, oil, flour, eggs and soap, up to November last year. A total of 1,129 packs were distributed to alternative learning centres, single mothers, fishermen, mini bus drivers and other B40 lower-income group recipients.

Together with partner NGOs such as Borneo Comrade and Pangrok Sulap, they spent over RM40,000 trying to reach isolated families, including those on remote islands such as Pulau Mumiang, Pulau Pitas and Pulau Jerman.

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Aside from distributing food, health workers and hospital frontliners also worked to distribute health and hygiene kits to the deeper pockets of Sabah.

However, he said many people, especially those in marginalised communities were still unaware of the implications of Covid-19.

According to Rien, there are still shortcomings in the management of Covid-19 in Sabah, mainly inconsistencies in enforcing SOPs in enhanced movement control order (EMCO) areas.

He said in some areas residents were allowed to go to work but in some others, residents still needed police approval.

“In the end, there were a series of protests at EMCO areas in Sabah. Besides that I also see that the government is still hesitant in conducting a community mapping exercise especially for those out of easy reach,” he said.

He suggested the state government strengthen its efforts to disseminate information to the public through social media platforms and other means, including by working with NGOs to distribute educational materials in different languages, considering Sabah’s diverse ethnicities.

He added that the government should reconsider a policy compelling NGOs to go through the Welfare Department to distribute aid, as this had made it very tedious for them.

Meanwhile Rizo Leong of NGO Pangrok Sulap said the biggest problem faced by Sabahans they knew, especially those under EMCO, was that they were unable to go out and work.

“Many of them are undocumented. Their areas also do not receive a lot of attention from the government and more often than not they are left out from the list of aid recipients.”

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He too suggested the state government open up avenues for better collaboration with NGOs and cut down on red tape.

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