KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 28 — While public discourse on the Covid-19 pandemic has centred around the concepts of effective infectivity rate (Rt) and intubation, those in the Orang Asli community have also rung alarm bells using terms they have lived with all their lives.
The Semai community who live in Perak, Pahang and Selangor, for example, used the word hawar — which is also the Malay word for “plague” — to describe illnesses that lie in wait only to strike many people in such a short time. Or, to use another word, an “epidemic”.
“We have this belief that there are certain sicknesses that will come once in a while, the sickness is always there, the virus is always there, it’s just a matter of time that it will strike the community, so it will come at a certain time.
“They call this hawar, when this sickness comes out, appears, it spreads and normally it is very contagious and affects a lot of people in the community,” Semai activist Anthony Williams-Hunt told Malay Mail when contacted recently.
According to a research paper Williams-Hunt co-authored with three others, the Semai community in Perak believe Covid-19 to be a type of hawar caused by nyaniik or an evil spirit, one that was able to cross geographical borders as it spreads via the wind.
Similarly, the Orang Asli communities such as the Semelai tribe in Pahang describe Covid-19 as sampar or an epidemic that requires a shaman to change the direction of the wind to keep the community safe.
The Jakun or Orang Hulu in Johor and Pahang, meanwhile, used the similar-sounding hawey, meaning an epidemic or disease that is capable of spreading quickly, when describing Covid-19.
Despite public perception that the indigenous community in Peninsular Malaysia are isolated folk, they are not exempt from the recent Covid-19 pandemic that has so far affected more than 2.6 million people in the country.
As Covid-19 cases grew more widespread in Malaysia from 2021 and amid record peak of new cases in August 2021, Orang Asli federal agency Jakoa recorded cumulatively 2,389 Covid-19 cases and 107 deaths among the community as of August 29.
Compared to the national cumulative total cases of 1,422,005 then, this made up merely 0.17 per cent, while deaths were at 0.67 per cent of the cumulative total deaths of 16,087 at that time.
Considering that Orang Asli made up roughly just 0.55 per cent of the total Malaysian population as of the most recent estimate in 2018, this was remarkable.
A recent paper titled “Indigenous resilience and the Covid-19 response: a situation report on the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia”, which featured research completed in December 2020, cited Health Ministry data that showed just 16 Covid-19 cases among the 113,010 in the community — a miniscule incidence of 0.014 per cent.
The paper suggested that this tiny incidence may be due to the tribes already having long-standing concepts about epidemics and airborne diseases, and traditional practices that are strikingly similar to ways to avoid a pandemic — ranging from physical distancing, strict self-quarantine, and area lockdown.
Therefore, when Covid-19 struck, the Orang Asli community could quickly respond to protect their own community.
This has also aided volunteers from the community and other organisations under the coalition OA Lawan Covid (Malay for “Orang Asli fight Covid”) to protect the community by embracing traditional customs such as pendinding to encourage vaccinations and pantang to explain the standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Others who collaborated in these efforts included University of Malaya (UM), Gombak Orang Asli Hospital, Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS), and RTM’s Orang Asli radio channel Asyik FM.
Protecting oneself and protecting everyone with ‘pendinding’
Williams-Hunt, also known as Bah Tony, was one of the four co-authors of the paper, with the rest being UM’s Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies’ associate and senior lecturer Rusaslina Idrus, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Anthropology and Sociology Programme lecturer Zanisah Man who is from the Semelai community, and Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia chairman Tijah Yok Chopil who is from the Semai community.
It was published earlier this year in the international academic journal of indigenous peoples, AlterNative.
“[The message is] to tell the world that Orang Asli are not keeping quiet about this, they are as concerned as other communities about the spread of the virus, and therefore they have taken actions —- putting up barricades and roadblocks to regulate entry of people into the villages, so that in doing so, outsiders who might have been infected with the disease don’t come into the village and infect the other Orang Asli.
“[It is] also to show that Orang Asli do have their own traditional methods of curtailing or rather, controlling measures to stop to check the spread of sickness and virus in their communities, so that was basically the aim or the inspiration that came out, that led to the writing of the paper,” Bah Tony told Malay Mail.
He gave the example of pendinding, a concept that is still practised by the Orang Asli and also common among traditional Malays. Roughly meaning protective shield, it usually refers to a method to ward off illness.
“Pendinding is still being observed in many kampungs, especially those in the interior, they still have it, because they say it sort of acts as a wall that can ward off sickness from coming to the Orang Asli,” he said.
Usually in the community, the pendinding uses spiritual incantations, or a bracelet blessed by a shaman. The shamans for the Semelai in Pahang, for example, give out blessed strings as talismans to be worn by individuals as pendinding to ward off sickness, the research paper said.
So when it comes to Covid-19, it was only natural for the OA Lawan Covid group to utilise this concept and incorporate it into posters that were then shared within the community to explain that vaccinations work in the same way as a pendinding.
The message is that by getting inoculated, those in the community would have a safe and effective shield they could use to build up immunity against the virus and protect themselves, their families and communities.
OA Lawan Covid has also released a series of short video clips — using the same theme and which includes an episode featuring the word pendinding — presented by Dayoung Shaniera Seliman, and have received thousands of views on its Facebook page.
This video series was a collaboration between Asyik FM, COAC, Gombak Orang Asli Hospital, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, and UM.
Pantang and preserving populace’s physical health
“When someone is sick or being treated by the shaman or the medicine man, you have to observe restrictions,” Bah Tony said, referring to pantang or taboos.
“Restrictions — not only like, ‘you can’t eat food which is spicy, you can’t eat food which will affect your health’ — but people also have to keep a distance from you, like people cannot come to your house.
“Because if they do that, they can infringe or can langgar pantang, and if this happens, the consequences will be very bad for the person who is being treated and even the shaman can suffer certain discomfort, because he is the one who treated this sick person,” he said, using the term for “breaking taboo”.
Among the Jakun community, a sick person is usually kept in a shelter away from the other villagers, while the Batek temporarily break into smaller groups and shifting away from their main settlement when there is serious illness or a death, the research paper said.
These practices would be familiar to many as self-isolation and keeping in one’s own social bubble to “break the chain” of Covid-19.
It was noted by the paper that the Batek in Pahang and Kelantan, as well as the Jakun in Pahang and Johor had retreated into the jungle where they could isolate themselves from outsiders who may carry the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus with them.
Some villages had also set up checkpoints and barricades, along with banners telling outsiders not to enter to prevent Covid-19 from spreading to their communities. One Semai village in Perak had also put up a traditional gate named gawar to both stop evil spirits and signal to outsiders that they were not welcome to enter.
Incorporating the pantang concept, a Covid-19 educational poster by OA Lawan Covid had likened the enhanced movement control order (EMCO) to observing a pantang to recover one’s health, and subsequently enabling one’s community to regain health.
This poster — a collaboration with the Gombak Orang Asli Hospital, the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, University of Malaya, and RTM’s Orang Asli radio channel Asyik FM — has since been translated by volunteers into multiple languages and sub-dialects of the different Orang Asli sub-ethnic groups.
On September 10, COAC also released the Covid-19 Protocol for Orang Asli Communities amid a worrying situation for the community then as at least 202 of the 853 official Orang Asli villages had recorded infections and with at least 42 of them having been placed under EMCO.
In the protocol which serves as a guideline and advisory on what they can or should do to protect themselves, methods listed including setting up barricades to control entry of non-residents on a round-the-clock basis, self-isolation for villagers returning from outside of the village, quarantine facilities within the village or at nearby schools or places of worship.
Also included was the encouragement to “acknowledge the role and influence that traditional spiritualities play in some Orang Asli communities” and to not “belittle” such belief systems or practices.
“Try to merge the traditional and modern knowledge systems to attain the common goal of Covid-free communities,” the protocol noted.
Keeping traditions alive amid environmental destruction
Rusaslina noted that the Orang Asli community had long understood the severity of Covid-19 by describing it using their traditional beliefs of epidemics or sicknesses that spread quickly through the wind or through the air.
This notion seemed to be vindicated when the World Health Organisation recognised in late April 2021 that Covid-19 is airborne and can be spread through aerosols instead of just droplets.
Rusalina said that while some dismissed the Batek’s retreat into the interiors as superstitious, she argued that the move was rational and logical for the community that knew the forest as their customary home that was familiar, safe, and a clean refuge with ample supplies.
“The reason we wrote this paper was to acknowledge Orang Asli’s efforts and we were tying it to their land rights. It’s about them being able to have control over their territory and also to be allowed to continue their traditional way of life,” she told Malay Mail.
“Their traditional way of life revolves around the environment... For these efforts to be able to continue, the Orang Asli must have their land rights strengthened and the environment must not be threatened.
“Even as we were understanding about Orang Asli trying to protect the community, some even had to spend energy warding off loggers,” she added.
In the last couple of years, Orang Asli communities in Perak, Pahang and Kelantan have been forced to erect blockades against loggers who have encroached on their ancestral lands and wreaked havoc on the environment and biodiversity of the land.
Uncontrolled logging and farming, oftentimes with the approval of state authorities, have also been accused of leaving them vulnerable to floods and landslides.
Composed of 18 ethnic subgroups, the Orang Asli community numbered 178,197 spread out across 853 villages in Peninsular Malaysia, based on the latest statistics as of 2018 by the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli.
By October this year, activist Reita Rahim in a report for the OA Lawan Covid coalition suggested that there have now been 122 deaths among the Orang Asli and 12,245 cases so far this year until October 18, which means 6.18 per cent of the Orang Asli population (estimated by Jakoa at 198,015 by 2019) has tested positive.
At 0.51 per cent of total Malaysia’s new cases (out of 2,396,121) and 0.44 per cent of total deaths (out of 27,993) as of October 18, the figures have now grown bigger and closer to the Orang Asli’s proportion of population — compared to the statistics when the research paper was written.
This has only stressed how important Orang Asli’s territories are to them and for Malaysians to respect their traditional ways of life, so they can stay resilient throughout the pandemic.
“Adaptation and resilience is only possible if they are able to continue their way of life. Everything about their way of life is related to the environment, having land allows them to be more resilient,” Rusaslina said.
“Some communities were able to go back to planting, in forests they have food security, allowing them to have resilience during this time of pandemic. When you have no land, no food, the pandemic doesn't allow you to go out for work, you are in trouble.
“When you still have land and have food, you are still able to survive.”