Ensuring access to remote areas in Sarawak

Martin says getting around in rural areas had always been a challenge.

KUCHING: Ever since the movement control order (MCO) began on March 18, airport staff in Sarawak’s interior areas have been working to ensure that air transport continues to operate smoothly to bring in food and medical supplies to remote communities.

One such area is Ba’kelalan in Sarawak’s northern highlands, eight hours by four-wheel drive from the nearest town of Lawas.

Its STOLport, or short take-off and landing airport, is a critical hub for the local communities who rely on air transport to bring in medical supplies and essentials like sugar, cooking oil and flour.

“Air travel is usually the fastest access to remote areas and settlements that are hard to reach by land, ” said Michael Racha Agung, a local Lun Bawang working as an airport operative at the Ba’kelalan STOLport.

“Our priority is to ensure airfields and landing strips are operating like clockwork so that flights and cargo can reach us safely.”

Agung and other STOLport staff have been working with the state government, Health and Transport Ministries and aviation authorities to coordinate chartered flight planning and landing slots to expedite supply chains and critical aid.

According to a press release from Malaysia Airports, the first food-aid mission from Miri landed at the Ba’kelalan STOLport in early April.

Agung, who has worked at the Ba’kelalan STOLport for over 20 years, said these missions were essential.

“Ba’kelalan’s remoteness is both a blessing and a curse in this pandemic, ” he said, noting that while the distance helped to limit the spread of the virus, it also made it difficult for daily necessities to reach the villagers regularly.

Alice Martin, another airport operative with over 30 years’ experience at the Ba’kelalan STOLport, said getting around in rural areas had always been a challenge.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and the restriction on movement, the communities are experiencing new challenges.

“The closest hospital to Ba’kelalan is located in Lawas, so the villagers here rely on the local health clinic which has limited medicine and less sophisticated medical equipment to deal with this outbreak.

“We are working with Rela (the Malaysian Volunteer Corps) to ensure Ba’kelalan is prepared for any outbreak and if we need to evacuate patients to Lawas Hospital by air, ” Martin said.

Agung and Martin have also been working with local medical staff to carry out sanitisation measures and temperature checks at the STOLport.

Malaysia Airports operates 12 STOLports in Sarawak to provide connectivity to isolated communities. — By SHARON LING

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