First published in The Malay Mail on 31 March, here.
MARCH 31 — As the novel cornavirus (Covid-19) continues to spread in an unpredictable manner it presents a growing risk to all stakeholders involved in food assistance, particularly in the area of food distribution. The latest government policy is to disallow NGOs, with the exception of a few approved ones, to directly distribute aid to vulnerable groups. It is strongly proposed that an interim protocol on partnership between health personnel, federal and local governments and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) be proposed to ensure that aid distribution is maintained.
The implementation of the movement control order (MCO) and the subsequent two weeks extension until April 14, 2020 was much needed to ensure that the spread of the virus is curtailed and further health risks avoided. However, this would mean Malaysians would be house bound for 1 month in total which would be financially challenging for many, especially daily income earners, bottom 40, undocumented — the vulnerable groups. Conditions will worsen if the MCO is further extended, which is a possibility given that the number of positive cases continues to rise by more than 100 daily.
Under normal circumstances, NGOs play a crucial role in assisting vulnerable groups meet their daily needs from providing food through soup kitchens and food banks to informal microfinancing to help pay bills, rent and providing other basic services. This is on top of on-going federal and state government aid programmes. This has continued and even ramped up during the MCO, where numerous NGOs self-organised themselves organically and have played an essential role in facilitating donations and other forms of contributions to vulnerable communities.
The #kitajagakita phrase, also used as an online platform to connect NGOs with the wider public keen to help, encapsulates this spirit of Malaysians helping each other, especially the vulnerable, during a time of great need.
It therefore came as a surprise when on 28 March, the government, due to the need for more stringent social distancing, announced for all CSOs to cease all aid distribution. Instead, the military and Rela would take over the provision of food and shelter in coordination with the National Welfare Department (JKM). Some confusion arose when a letter from the Ministry of Health on March 30 approved 12 NGOs to continue functioning throughout the MCO period, accompanied with stringent health and hygiene conditions, fairly so. What was even more confusing is that the National Disaster Management Agency under the Prime Minister’s Department stated that the letter is only valid up to March 31.
NGOs are mostly community-centred, are acutely aware of their target groups, and have built rapport and trust with these communities over the years. Studies have consistently shown that in times of crisis, strengthening local community resources ensures resilience for both short and long term timelines.
Therefore government should not be clamping down on existing, trusted, experienced and communal resources but instead strengthen it. Examples of other governments working alongside the NGO community during this global crisis already exist. The New Zealand government recently allocated $27 million to ensure NGOs and community groups keep providing for the most vulnerable during their four week Covid-19 lockdown.
The French government created a website to recruit volunteers for emergency food aid, childcare for healthcare personnel, checking in on isolated and fragile people, and neighbourhood solidarity. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) platform has a growing list of more than 90 examples in more than 20 countries of governments around the world working alongside civil society organisations to produce platforms and working jointly on disaster response strategies. The Malaysian government can surely learn from these case studies and adopt a more open, transparent working relationship for the greater good.
In the principle of do no harm, it is hence proposed that the government work together in collaboration with NGOs to continue providing services within local community while still abiding to the social distancing strategy as directed by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation.
In tackling future national security circumstances, it is strongly recommended that the membership of the National Security Council Act 2016 be amended to include representation of civil society. The terms and conditions of this membership can be negotiated and clearly spelt out, where for instance, one NGO representative would be essential in tackling community issues and in the case of public health crises such as this, one public health representative would also be necessary.
However, in the interest of urgency as we collectively fight the COVID 19 pandemic at present, an interim protocol for collaboration between government and NGOs should be established immediately to ensure that no one falls through the cracks. We recommend that this be adopted by the government immediately.
The interim protocol should be based on the following principles:
It is important to ensure equal access to impartial assistance according to need and without discrimination. All vulnerable communities should be given equal social and economic protection to ensure they have the resilience to survive throughout the MCO period. Beneficiaries who reluctant come forward because of existing marginalisation (such as migrant workers and refugees in the Malaysian context) should be identified.
Sensitisation of information
Information should be shared with communities which is in line with national guidelines, including advice for at-risk groups (elderly and persons with pre-existing health conditions).
Community engagement and clear communications and feedback mechanism will be crucial to reduce transmission, contain the spread of the disease and reduce fear, misinformation, confusion and tension. Existing community mechanisms as well as distribution activities should be leveraged to disseminate information at community level.
Adjustments may include increase in the number of distribution sites/food outlets to avoid large gatherings, staggering of distribution cycles (e.g. providing rations that will cover a longer duration) and loading procedures to reduce frequency of gatherings, changes in packaging/kitting procedures to reduce time on site and contact. Spaces must be clearly organised so as to avoid crowding, and hygiene and social distancing measures must be practised.
Government should encourage and not discourage NGOs willing to contribute their time and resources in helping vulnerable communities during times of crises. A spirit of open collaboration should be adopted by government, and a standard set of health guidelines and standard operating procedure (SOP) should be issued to all NGOs intending to engage in aid distribution. Selecting only a dozen or so organisations without the necessary transparent selection procedures creates distrust.
Allowing society to self-organise organically is the only way to ensure the most vulnerable groups will be given protection during this time.
We understand and respect that the government has good intentions of avoiding further risk of virus spread, and reacted in a way to mitigate potential risks by restricting aid distribution to only several NGOs. However, government resources are not infinite, financial or otherwise.
There is already anecdotal evidence of government ministries and agencies reaching out to the NGOs for assistance.
More importantly, it is impossible for the government to be aware of all vulnerable communities that simultaneously exist in all corners of the country. NGOs have worked for many years to build a deep understanding and trust within these communities, and have an acute knowledge of how they function and what their needs are.
Balancing the need to contain the COVID 19 virus while ensuring our vulnerable communities are well-protected is challenging, but the government can emerge with a systematic response to working closely with NGOs. Since the MCO started, thousands of ringgit have already poured in from everyday Malaysians to NGOs, who in turn have assisted in providing food and other forms of aid to vulnerable communities.
Government must begin to realise that it must work hand-in-hand with NGOs to resolve national crises, including health pandemics such as what we currently face. Moving forward, a systematic approach where resources are pooled and willing collaborators identified for a positive working relationship is the best option in tackling the social and economic consequences of Covid-19. Approve an interim protocol, while future long-term measures must also be considered.
* Altaf Deviyati is Director of Operations at IMAN Research. Tricia Yeoh is Fellow at IDEAS.