Rural communities still reeling from post-Covid trauma, says anthropologist


Research by anthropologist Dr Vilashini Somiah and research assistant Lauren Brodie Tsen reveal that rural indigenous communities in Sabah are still dealing with post-Covid trauma and uncertainty.

It has been four years since the pandemic first hit but rural communities in Sabah are still reeling from its effects. Mental health issues are among the challenges that they face and for various reasons.

Emanuel, a 28-year-old young Sabahan of indigenous Murut descent, laments that it has been “really difficult to earn a steady livelihood to support (his) family”.

“I feel sadness and fear because of the pandemic, and I worry for my family, especially my young children, because we live where Internet is inaccessible and we can't get the relevant information needed to stay safe from Covid-19 and other diseases,” he says.

“This affects me mentally but I don’t really talk about it with my family or peers. I just keep it to myself because such things aren’t spoken about,” he adds.

It took Emanuel and his family five hours to get to the town of Nabawan, Sabah, where they were interviewed in September last year for a study on the mental health struggles of rural indigenous communities in Sabah.

Titled “The Mental Health Struggles and Other Survival Issues of Indigenous, Rural Sabahans Post Covid-19: A Gendered Analysis”, the research was conducted by anthropologist Dr Vilashini Somiah and her research assistant Lauren Brodie Tsen.

Around 60 indigenous people and families from remote areas were interviewed and their narratives collected for this study funded by a faculty grant, according to Vilashini who is a senior lecturer at the Gender Studies Programme in Universiti Malaya.

The study reveals that many of them “suffered from depression, and feelings of hopelessness as a result of the pandemic”.

Limited Internet and medical aid

Vilashini (left) meets with Pensiangan MP Datuk Arthur Kurup at his office in Keningau, to discuss her findings on rural life and mental health issues of indigenous rural communities. Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahVilashini (left) meets with Pensiangan MP Datuk Arthur Kurup at his office in Keningau, to discuss her findings on rural life and mental health issues of indigenous rural communities. Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahDue to their remote location, limited Internet data and inconsistent medical aid are among the main issues faced by these communities, says Vilashini.

“In 2020, Veveonah Mosibin, a student from Kampung Sapatalang, Pitas, had to climb a tree to get internet connectivity so that she could take her exam online.

“This reveals the state of Internet services in such rural areas. And, over three years later, it’s still like that,” she says, adding that she too found it challenging to upload data that she’d collected to her online storage facility (iCloud) daily. She would have to wait until she reached the nearest town where there’s Internet coverage.

Medical attention, which is already scarce in a town such as Nabawan, is worse in more remote and isolated villages, she adds.

“Furthermore, in Nabawan, which is listed as one of the top ten poorest districts in the country, people really can’t afford medical treatment. If someone is ill from Covid-19 or suffers side-effects from vaccinations, they can’t go to the hospital because not only is it too far away, it costs too much.

“Loss of physical health and livelihood due to Covid-19 and vaccination side-effects, as well as fear of the unknown, have resulted in much trauma for the community. What exacerbates this is the taboos around talking about mental health struggles. They have to find ways to cope with it themselves,” she adds.

Imagine this: at the height of Covid-19, when everyone was scrambling for any available information about the disease and remedies to deal with the effects of the pandemic, these poor folk were completely shut off.

Nabawan town centre. Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahNabawan town centre. Photo: Dr Vilashini Somiah

Vilashini highlights that while there are efforts to help locals get medical aid via free mobile clinics, this doesn’t cover mental health.

Doctors are given specific SOPs to focus on chronic illnesses such as Covid-19, and this is at the expense of mental health, she says.

“But, mental health counselling must be included when helping these people because it affects their physical health and livelihood too,” she adds.

There were also narratives about the vaccinations that raise concerns.

“While most of these communities are vaccinated, it’s not to the same extent as people in urban areas, in terms of the number of doses. Some also report that the side effects from the vaccination were more severe that the symptoms they had from Covid-19 itself.

“And for farmers involved in physical labour, the side effects affected their ability to work and earn an income, for days, and sometimes even longer.

“Furthermore, there was no treatment for side effects. They were encouraged to ‘be grateful because the vaccine has arrived’. While urbanites have access to information – they can Google what to expect and be prepared for the vaccination – these communities rarely know what to expect,” she says adding that among the side effects they reported were massive body aches that stayed longer than anticipated.

“And they have very real fears that they’re never going to be strong enough again to tend to their farms which is their main livelihood.”

Distrust of outsiders

Because of the local's general distrust of outsiders, Vilashini and Brodie Tsen had to reach out to the rural indigenous communities through organisations such as Sosea and SIB (pictured). Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahBecause of the local's general distrust of outsiders, Vilashini and Brodie Tsen had to reach out to the rural indigenous communities through organisations such as Sosea and SIB (pictured). Photo: Dr Vilashini Somiah

According to Vilashini, another issue with rural indigenous communities is their “distrust of outsiders and authority figures”.

“They fear that the outside world could bring in disease, judgement, and more trauma.”

Because of this distrust, Vilashini had to work with local organisations such as Sabah Social Entrepreneurs (Sosea) – an NGO – and Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB), a local indigenous church, to gain access to the local communities.

“We obtained permission before going into the villages. Some were so inaccessible that people offered to come out to meet as at the nearest town.”

These communities have a general distrust of government officials and authority figures such as hospital staff, police officers, and others because they aren’t part of the status quo, explains Vilashini.

“Authority figures don’t and can’t access these places regularly. A lot of doctors based here during the pandemic aren’t local but from Peninsula Malaysia so there are cultural differences.There are also language limitations because many rural indigenous people don’t speak English or even Bahasa Malaysia, but converse in their own indigenous language.”

Dispelling misinformation

The remoteness of these communities poses numerous problems of access to healthcare and event digital services. Photo: Dr Vilashini SomiahThe remoteness of these communities poses numerous problems of access to healthcare and event digital services. Photo: Dr Vilashini Somiah

There is also much misinformation during the pandemic and no avenues to correct this wrong information due to lack of connectivity.

Vilashini highlights the example of a village that has planted a vegetable called keladi Cina (Chinese taro) and sold it at the tamu (local indigenous market) for years.

“But when the pandemic came, they were prevented from doing so.

“Why? Because Covid-19 was believed to have originated from Wuhan, China, and the vegetable, having the word ‘Cina’ tagged to it, was villainised and the farmers were accused of ‘bringing Covid-19 into the community’,” says Vilashini.

“Three years have passed but it continues to be an issue despite being told by doctors that those beliefs about keladi Cina just aren’t true.

“The village, which is known for this vegetable which they’ve grown for generations, has lost their only source of income. They’ve stopped planting and selling vegetables, and returned to foraging for survival,” she says.

Challenges faced by rural indigenous communities aren’t two-dimensional, she says.

“There are over 40 different indigenous groups in Sabah and each faces their own issues so there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

She adds that these communities are often ignored because “people misconstrue that there is no urgency to help them since they’re remote and safe from Covid-19” or because “they can still survive by foraging/hunting in the forest, or rearing their own chickens for eggs”.

“But the moment the borders opened up and business resumed, these communities were not equipped to return to normal just like everybody else,” she says.

“Many still can’t recover from their loss of livelihood and are afraid to start something new because they don’t have the relevant knowledge nor training. They also fear for the future, that they’ll be ‘jabbed with the vaccination booster shots again and it will make them very ill and unable to work',” she highlights.

But, on a positive note, Vilashini believes these communities aren’t passively waiting for help to come their way.

“They’re well aware of what they need.

“And they have all clearly stated their needs during the interviews: Medical aid in the form of travelling hospitals; infrastructure for stable Internet data or at the very least, proper roads to offer access to towns where there is infrastructure for communication purposes,” she concludes.

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