PETALING JAYA: March 18, 2020 – a date many Malaysians remember as the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was initiated as part of the government’s efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
For Datuk Hartini Zainudin, however, this would be a date forever etched in her memory for another reason.
As news of the lockdown made waves across the nation, Hartini was receiving at least 300 pleas for food aid across all her communication platforms.
“From Whatsapp to Facebook and other social media platforms, the pleas for help never ended. People from all walks of life were asking for help.
“Accompanying them were videos and pictures of hunger-stricken households,” she said as she wiped tears from her eyes.
“My phone was jammed the entire time as messages poured in and the calls never stopped.
“The pleas were coming nationwide, with some from Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and many also coming from Sabah.
“When I asked some of these people where they got my number from, I learnt that it was floating around as people looked high and low for someone to help them,” she said at a special interview with the media on Saturday.
The Yayasan Chow Kit co-founder realised the situation was beyond just the health concerns, but also how the welfare of the people, especially the hardcore poor were at stake.
“People don’t ask for food all of a sudden.
“They ask only when they have reached a point where the hunger is unbearable, which means they have gone for days without any food,” she said.
Several months later, Hartini was invited to be part of the National Recovery Council (NRC) which brought relief to her.
“This gave me the opportunity to collaborate with the government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even corporations for the benefit of the people.
“I agreed immediately, as this (NRC) gave me a bigger platform to do something for the country.
“My position as a committee member also meant I could now represent civil society to contribute to the nation especially in an emergency,” she said.
Recalling her first meeting with the NRC sometime in August 2021, Hartini said she attended the meeting virtually while at the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS).
“The discussion began with health, Covid-19 case numbers and the economy before later moving to the topic of social protection.
“At the same time, my phone was still being flooded with food pleas, with 268 of them coming from messages alone.”
Hartini then ‘raised her hand’ during the virtual session and asked for NRC chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s attention on the matter.
“I put my phone onto the screen and asked for him (Muhyiddin) to take a look at the real situation on the ground.
“He went silent for a bit before asking me to present what I wanted to do,” she said.
During the next NRC meeting a fortnight later, Hartini made her presentation and highlighted how urgently emergency food were needed for those in hunger.
“He (Muhyiddin) asked where these people were from, and when I said a majority came from Sabah, Kelantan and Terengganu, he said I couldn’t choose any states or groups as help was needed to be channelled to all.
“Upon agreement, I then asked for this initiative to be led by NGOs and civil society as we can really complement what all other parties, including the government, is doing.
“We then rallied the NGOs nationwide and asked for their help in making this a success.
“Despite our funding not being the best, we tried hard to make things work and even crowdfunded to raise money to help others,” she said, adding that the Finance Ministry approved RM2mil for this initiative, with Yayasan Sejahtera contributing RM800,000 later.
She added that being part of the NRC also gave her the opportunity to meet the head of ministries and agencies, alongside industry leaders.
“I was face-to-face with people whom I only read about in newspapers and seen on the television.
“At times, I was also starstruck as I have never imagined being able to meet them in person, especially in my capacity as an activist.
“Now that I was in the same room with these people, I seized the chance to speak with them on the various issues plaguing our society.
“The best part is that we all can sit down and come up with ‘out of the box’ solutions that are plaguing our society,” she said.
She added that it was also heart-warming to see politicians from both sides of the divide alongside industry leaders coming together to help fellow Malaysians.
“Previously, it would take years for us (NGOs) to present a plan or idea to the policymakers.
“Through the NRC, however, there is somewhat of a short cut which allows us to execute our plans faster.
“Time is of the essence here, as lives are at stake even as we speak,” she said.
Despite everyone thinking the pandemic is over, Hartini said there was more than meets the eye.
“For me, it’s no longer about B40 but B60 instead. The middle class has shrunk.
“If you head to the soup kitchens, it is no longer just the hardcore poor or homeless, but also those from the middle class as they needed food, after spending their money on their homes, cars and what not,” she said.
On the food basket initiative carried out by the government, Hartini lauded the move but noted that the supplies would not last more than two weeks at most.
She added that she was also set to present a future initiative to the NRC during their next meeting, aimed at providing hot meals for marginalised families.
“In this pilot project, it will ensure the selected households will not only get a food basket but also ensure they have at least one hot meal a day.
“It will revolve around the entire infrastructure and ecosystem of giving food aid to people.
“Here, NGOs can identify which households consist of members who are elderly, sick, single mothers and more where we (NGOs) can come together to help,” she said, adding that it was a multi-pronged approach towards tackling social issues.
She added that it was not about the economy alone when discussing the nation’s recovery but society as a whole.
“We need a collective effort from everyone across the board to help Malaysia heal one step at a time.
“Thankfully, all my suggestions to the NRC have been well received, with even our first one being approved for implementation,” she said.
When asked how she would do anything differently if another situation akin to Covid-19 happens again, Hartini said she hoped for committees such as the NRC to be readily available.
“This gives (us) easy access to all the agencies to ensure the necessary measures can be implemented in an efficient and timely manner.
“We have to work together. There are no divides, and it’s all about Malaysians working together.
“The NRC has always supported me, and I am grateful for this,” she said.
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