TO DATE, we have seen a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in Sabah, reaching 466 cases in a single day on Oct 30.

What is devastating is that the total cases have reached more than 11,000 since earlier this year, with the number of deaths also on the rise.

Just like in the peninsula, the partial lockdown has impacted businesses and employment negatively for those in the formal and informal sectors. Demand has been weak as consumers move to prioritise spending to essential goods, uncertain of how many more Conditional Movement Control Order (MCO) extensions they will see.

While the poor, youth and women have been hit hard, another segment that has been negatively impacted is the Pala’u community or the Bajau Laut community, considered an minority ethnic, living on boats and leading a nomadic lifestyle. They live near the shores, and can be seen dispersed from Kudat all the way to Semporna. There is also a part of the community who are living near the seashores.

Given their skills and talent in fishing, it is no surprise that their main occupation is tied to the sea. What makes them even more vulnerable in the backdrop of the spread of the virus and the partial lockdown is their status in Malaysia.

Most of them are still undocumented, even though they have lived among us for many generations. A recent survey in 2018 estimated that about 60,000 people are undocumented in Sabah. Without proper documentation, they do not have access to healthcare nor education. Without proper education, they are trapped in a cycle of perpetual poverty. Their kids will be poor and their grandchildren will be poor.

I was given the opportunity to do fieldwork in Semporna in August and observed first-hand how education has the power to transform a person’s life, a family’s destiny and the fate of the community. I visited two schools that cater to the undocumented children mostly from the Pala’u community, equipping them with basic knowledge of Mathematics, English, and Bahasa Melayu, among others.

One school, which was set up by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Haluan, was located in Kampung Hidayat, Bum Bum Island, while a local resort owner on Mabul Island set up the other school. As funding is an issue, education is only given to a targeted age group.

In Big John’s school in Mabul, around 90 children are divided into three spaces in their tiny school, catering to children from 7 to 9 years old. Even with the dire state of the school with limited resources, the children loved learning there and their motivation exudes from their smiling faces. Even with basic education, this community will always be bound to live as fishermen. If they are successful, they can become middlemen, or towkays in their fishing community. Without any proper documentation, they will not be able to secure formal jobs anywhere as employers will be penalised if they are found to employ those without documents.

Additionally, due to kidnapping and piracy issues in Sabah waters, employees need to be insured. You can only be insured if you are registered. With a restricted life bound by the sea, Pala’u youth suffer.

In Semporna, we saw children and teenagers begging for food near the jetty. We also saw teenage and young boys out cold at the lobby of commercial districts and government agency buildings, intoxicated by “gam” or industrial glue. Most of them live in the kampung adjacent to Semporna.

Recently, with the CMCO being implemented in Sabah, this has affected their livelihoods as they heavily depend on demand from mainland Sabah. Without sales from their daily catch that can be used to buy other essential goods to feed and protect their families, they are left exposed and unprotected.

As they are undocumented, they will not be eligible for the government’s assistance, pushing them further into poverty, into the mercy of heroic NGOs who have been pushing for the registration of the community.

With cases also on the rise within the Pala’u community, the fear of possible deportation grows after they are brought to the quarantine centres in mainland Sabah to recover. Without proper care of low and high-risk cases among them, the fight to end the spread of Covid19 will perpetuate. If there was no urgency before in providing them with proper documents, there is urgency now as their lives depend on this very effort that can be solely provided by the government.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 03 November 2020.

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