Shining a light on the plight of the vulnerable


THE long suffering Bateq community in Kampung Kuala Koh is finally getting the help and attention it needs from the government.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and other Cabinet ministers have seen their suffering first hand in Gua Musang, Kelantan.

And authorities are working hard to determine the illness which claimed 14 lives, treat those still ill and prevent a possible spread of the disease.

But other elephants in the room remained.

It was exactly two weeks ago on June 2, when Sahabat Jariah – a non-governmental organisation – broke the news about the deaths of the Orang Asli in a Facebook posting. But it took almost another week before the deaths made the headlines in newspapers and caught the attention of the authorities.

Why? How could the deaths of so many Malaysians, yes Malaysians, go undetected?

Considered the most reserved of the Orang Asli in the peninsula, and numbering no more that 2,000 individuals, the Bateq are hunters and food gatherers. Their culture and language are already vulnerable.

Was there a lapse among state and federal agencies tasked with overseeing the welfare of these and other Orang Asli tribes?

Was there resignation and distrust among the Bateq towards the agencies and officials? If so, why?

It was reported that the Kelantan authorities initially downplayed reports that 14 had died from a mystery illness. The Kelantan Health Department said the “alleged” deaths could not be verified – as no official reports were lodged - while police there could only account for one fatality, which they classified as sudden death.

The disturbing headlines, fortunately were not ignored by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department P. Way­­tha Moorthy, who visited the affected families in Kelantan.

It was him who confirmed to the press that 13 deaths had occurred, shockingly, in little over a month, between between May 2 to June 7, while one more person was found dead on June 9.

In the days that followed, it emerged that 103 out of 185 members of the community from 39 families had respiratory problems including breathing difficulties, cough and colds.

Up to Friday, 56 had received outpatients treatment, while 47 had been warded, including five in intensive care units, at three Kelantan hospitals.

Search and recovery teams have so far recovered eight out of 12 bodies, which were buried or left in the jungle by the community.

Yet, while the issue of how the suffering of the isolated community could be allowed to exacerbate remains, we must acknowledge that this is not the time to point fingers. It’s the time to pinpoint the cause of these deaths.

Unfortunately, the painful answers - to all unanswered questions - about this calamity will bring little or no relief to the Bateq, who had to watch their loved ones and neighbours die.

But the answers are necessary to ensure the Bateq, nor any other Orang Asli, or Malaysians have to endure such loss and hardship again.

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