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COMMENT | Giving birth in a kongsi during lockdown

COMMENT | Thirteen days had passed since the Movement Control Order (MCO) was first enforced and together with one person from the Tenaganita NGO, I found myself on a quiet trip to an area well-known for its waterfalls and a sprawling memorial park.

It was just outside of Semenyih in Selangor. I am on the Sahabat Wanita food aid team and we were well aware that from the next day onward, such trips may be disallowed, so we rushed to the spot on March 31 to drop-off provisions to migrants whom we knew would not be reached by the government aid.

The landscape was dotted with many sawmills and we managed to reach three on that day. The workers at each sawmill are housed within the mill enclosure – the cutting machines, the stacks of logs and sawn planks are practically next door to the workers’ quarters. 

The whole place was filled with sawdust and mud. It was raining heavily when we arrived at the first sawmill, so we were spared being engulfed by tiny sawdust particles but had to navigate the bumpy terrain filled with puddles of muddy water.

When we got out to speak to the workers, no one seemed worried about the Coronavirus in this community-living for workers called kongsi (originally derived from the Hokkien dialect but has been adopted as a colloquial word to mean workers’ living quarters) – where workers and their families share makeshift spaces made of plywood. 

Only two or three wore masks.

Giving birth in hiding

What shook me most was a woman who had given birth in this kongsi just seven days before. 

She birthed her baby without the help of a midwife or medical assistance. It was only when she declined our offer to take her to the hospital for a fully sponsored treatment, health checks and vaccination for her baby, did we realise her fears and understand the reasons for her home birthing.

While children played in the dust, we were mindful that the woman and the baby are vulnerable to illnesses and faced a high risk of contracting coronavirus. 

Not wanting to contaminate their dwellings we did not go into their homes or talk to this new mother, but we also knew that she would not have been able to get the traditional diet usually afforded to new mothers – she did not have chicken or any of the herbs which would have been used traditionally to renew her strength to help her feed her baby. 

In her case, we were helpless as we only brought dry rations and the only proteins we had were canned sardines and eggs. 

I just hope that the woman and her baby are able to tide over this period in good health. If anything were to happen, she would have little or no access to medical assistance.

She is an undocumented migrant which was why she risked her life with a home birth. Like her, thousands of undocumented migrants self-medicate for illnesses and risk home births, fearful of the authorities. 

Their lack of access to healthcare leaves them increasingly vulnerable to the pandemic. Her undocumented status is what prevented us from making use of the legal avenues the government had offered to NGOs distributing food aid.

The government may have lifted the ban on NGOs distributing food aid to the poor and homeless affected by the MCO, but the strict requirement to have a member of the People's Volunteer Corps (RELA) accompany us to these locations prevents us from reaching undocumented workers who are in dire need of food and or medical supplies.

Provisions have long since depleted in their dwellings and workers and their families are stranded without the means for basic necessities and food -unreached by government food aid efforts, and this bureaucratic containment rules stifle our efforts.

Fear of authority

There are an estimated six million migrant workers in the country and about two-thirds of them are undocumented, many crowding into squalid spaces, with no access to local healthcare facilities and no means to pay for private healthcare.

Undocumented workers are still fearful of the authorities and if a RELA personnel, dressed in his fatigues, had accompanied us to this kongsi, no one would have come out to receive the provisions.

This is because RELA has been known in the past to launch arrest initiatives on undocumented workers. 

Though presently, we were assured that no arrests or documentation check would be made but what will stop this RELA personnel from making a beeline to this kongsi once the MCO is lifted and the virus pandemic dies down?

This was why we do not want to take such risks.

The Ministries of Defence and Health need to urgently look at revising the policy and applying disaster protocols that will suspend red tape procedures because the situation for many has become very dire.

A humanitarian crisis looms

The fact that people do not have food is a reality and we cannot pretend that undocumented workers do not exist. It is not too late to reconsider a policy that is preventing food from reaching those in need of it.

Our priority should be to ensure that no one goes hungry during the MCO and the relevant ministries can find a way to monitor NGOs, designating them to areas which they will serve.

This way, food aid can be distributed quickly all across Malaysia, as NGOs already know where they are needed and the food provisions can be raised through donations from Malaysia’s generous public who have never failed to rise to the call for aid.

IRENE XAVIER is Executive Director of Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor, a women's workers rights organisation formed in 1984.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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