Pandemic offers opportunity to do better by marginalised groups

BANGKOK • Tui usually sleeps on the floor of a local wet market in Chiang Mai city. Last month, he was arrested for violating the night-time curfew imposed by the Thai government to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

A court sentenced the homeless man to 15 days in jail, but suspended it. It fined him 1,500 baht (S$66), but he couldn't pay. In the end, the judge also waived Tui's three-day detention in lieu - but ordered him to stay home for seven days.

Maddening scenes like this have played out across Asia as governments wrestle with a virus so relentless in exploiting humanity's failings. Lockdowns have become a prism for society, baring forgotten communities, as the health authorities race to close any gap the contagion might infiltrate.

From refugees to migrants, indigenous people to homeless folk, governments have been forced to take a closer look at people living in the shadows and most vulnerable to infection.

Some outcomes of this scrutiny have been particularly troubling.

Tui, for example, is resigned to hiding when the 10pm to 4am curfew comes into force. "I will just have to hide, hoping the police don't see me on the streets at night again," he told Human Rights Watch.

No such detentions have been reported yet in Bangkok, where some 1,000 vagrants live. Here, homeless folks face a peculiar blend of pity and prejudice which muddy attempts to address their situation.

"People often ask: Why don't they find work? Why don't they live in shelters?" said Mr Sittiphol Chuprajong, a project manager at Mirror Foundation that looks after marginalised groups.

What they don't know is that state-run shelters are often occupied by people with mental illness, he said, which makes other residents feel insecure. It is hard for shelter residents to look for jobs on their own because they need to seek permission each time they head out.

While the crisis in Thailand has spawned numerous pop-up kitchens to feed the needy, it has not triggered any more desire to understand the homeless, said Mr Sittiphol. For many, it has just become harder to sleep in the rough.

Elsewhere, the pandemic has fuelled panic-stricken anomie. In India, Muslims have been threatened and attacked by mobs enraged by claims that the minority group is deliberately spreading the virus. In Malaysia, more than 100,000 Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar are on the edge after mass detentions and assaults by people worked up by xenophobic online chatter.

Ms Sharifah Shakirah, the United States-based founder of Rohingya Women Development Network who lived in Malaysia for 21 years, was inundated with calls from fellow refugees. "They were so afraid. They didn't know what would happen after the lockdown ended," she said just before Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin eased the movement control order last week. "They don't dare to go out."

Outside of Malaysia, their circumstances are equally desperate. About one million Rohingya are holed up in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Another roughly 600,000 live in apartheid-like conditions within Myanmar. Before the pandemic, their best ticket out of misery was a ride on smugglers' boats to Malaysia, where they could possibly find work or even seek asylum in a third country.

Now that door is shut. Malaysia fears they might import the virus. Bangladesh, livid over being cornered yet again into giving refuge, has transferred more than 300 Rohingya men, women and children from their decrepit boats to the cyclone-prone island of Bhasan Char. It was labelled a quarantine, but is feared to be the start of a forcible relocation to this remote outpost.

Indigenous people have been flagged as another vulnerable group. Some communities, like the Buntao' in Indonesia's South Sulawesi, are self-sufficient enough to seal themselves off from the outside world to ward off the virus.

Collectively, though, indigenous people face incredible odds. They are three times more likely to be living in extreme poverty. This makes it harder for them to stock up on food, pay for medical treatment, and sustain themselves once they cannot work, said the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues in a note last month.

Indigenous communities experience higher levels of cardiovascular disease, HIV/Aids and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Many "are also defenceless against new diseases, particularly those in voluntary isolation", said the UN group.

They are also less educated. In Cambodia, for example, only 29 per cent of indigenous people can write and read Khmer language, compared with 77.1 per cent in the general population. Only 27.1 per cent of indigenous people stay in school beyond primary level, compared with 52.8 per cent overall.

With Cambodian schools closed indefinitely since mid-March to contain the outbreak, indigenous students risk falling even further behind. Many live in remote areas with little access to the Internet or television - the main modes by which Cambodia's Education Ministry now delivers pre-recorded lessons.

To reach these children, state educators went for technology that was cheap, easy-to-use and widely available. They chose radio. Using three indigenous languages, it produced audio lessons in reading and mathematics for first-to third-graders. They are now being broadcast in the mountainous Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri provinces, where most of Cambodia's indigenous people live.

This may not change things overnight, but it's a start. As middle class lifestyles in urban Asia converge and we get comfortable with sharing drinks over Zoom, it is easy to forget people are still struggling to top up their prepaid SIM cards. Ethnic minority children struggle when basic education is not delivered in their mother tongue. Cambodia's modest radio effort is just one example of how it's always possible to craft an inclusive response even in the middle of a crisis.

In fact, a crisis like this compels us to be inclusive. Any vulnerability simply sows the seed for a future disaster. "Build back better", a phrase coined by disaster recovery circles, is catching on as this health and economic crisis ravages the world. This is a pandemic poised to transform work and travel and turn social etiquette on its head. It's also a precious opportunity to learn how to do better by marginalised communities.

Let's not waste it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2020, with the headline Pandemic offers opportunity to do better by marginalised groups. Subscribe