- Decades of marginalization and dislocation have made many of Malaysia’s indigenous Penan people mistrustful of both state and federal officials.
- This mistrust, along with anti-vaccination propaganda and structural issues like lack of identity cards, have led to vaccine hesitancy in Penan communities on the island of Borneo.
- Penan leaders say many in their communities are more concerned with long-term issues, like forest loss and lack of identity cards, than they are with COVID-19.
Deep-rooted mistrust in the Malaysian federal and state governments is preventing many Indigenous Penan people from accepting the COVID-19 vaccine. While there have been reports of some individuals traveling up to 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the nearest vaccination clinic, many Penan in the Bornean state of Sarawak are reportedly wary of accepting vaccines after decades of losing the forests they call home to state-owned and private timber companies.
“The two main reasons the Penan aren’t getting vaccinated is that they don’t have enough information and they don’t trust the government because of dealings in the past,” Peter Kallang of Sarawak-based NGO Save Rivers told Mongabay.
Most Penan live in rural areas, a double-edged sword during the pandemic: while avoiding urban centers limits their exposure to the virus, the great distances between their homes and the nearest hospital or clinic results in limited available medical care — and limited available medical knowledge. There have also been worrying reports of anti-vaccine videos spreading on WhatsApp, the mobile messaging app, deepening these communities’ mistrust.
Activists are sounding the alarm that the Sarawak state government needs to better inform these communities about the dangers of COVID-19 and the necessity of the vaccine, but say mismanaged top-down outreach programs are seeing little success.
The son of a Penan headman, calling himself only Isene, told Mongabay that the community needs the right information from “someone they know and trust.”
“What is the virus? What is the vaccination? What is its function? It’s very important to get the facts to them but right now things are happening too fast,” he said. “The Penan need time to digest all this information.”
The Penan people are one of the last nomadic Indigenous groups living on the island of Borneo, numbering nearly 22,000 across the Upper Baram River Basin. Regular contact with most is difficult, because although the vast majority are now settled in small villages and farms, these settlements lack phone and internet service. Despite being settled, visiting the forest every day for food and medicine remains a vital part of their custom, and as such, the logging of Sarawak’s forests has forcibly displaced many Penan over the decades.
“They have been fighting for decades against the destruction of the forest which is their home and livelihood,” Kallang said. “We don’t see any change in the government’s attitude towards the Penans since the ’70s. No effort has been made to ask them what they need concerning this vaccination drive, or what they need to regain trust in the government. Our government still has a colonial attitude.”
Malaysia has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic due in part to a sluggish vaccination program; in a country of 32 million, only 10.4 million had received even a single a vaccine dose as of July 9. The vaccination rate in Sarawak is higher than the national average, with 41% of residents receiving a single dose. But that effort has been marred by a policy of refusing vaccines for rural residents on the basis they do not have government-issued identity cards — a problem that has long disproportionally affected Malaysia’s Indigenous groups by barring their access to education and jobs.
It is unknown exactly how many Penan now live without identity cards. A leaked 2012 “Resettlement Action Plan” stated that “The lack of identity cards has been cited as one of the reasons many of the Penan (who seek employment) cannot get higher paid employment. In addition, without these cards they cannot be registered for some of the national and state poverty eradication programs.” At the time, the report estimated 285 Penan households were living without identity cards.
For Komeok Joe, CEO of the Indigenous Penan organization KERUAN, these long-term problems are the focus for the Penan people. “For them, COVID is just for the next two to three years. They tell me, ‘First we want our forest protected, and our ID cards. The vaccine won’t protect us from an empty stomach,’” he said.
“They tell me, ‘Leave us alone, don’t put pressure on us. We will take it when we are ready.’ They are angry that they are getting so much attention when people are suffering in the cities. ‘Why should the government force us when we feel safe and millions of others need the vaccine and help?’” he added.
“Force is not correct in their custom, they feel hunted. Some worry the vaccine will do them harm.”
The government, however, rejects any notion of tensions between Indigenous communities and the state. Dennis Ngau, assemblyman for Sarawak’s Telang Usan district, said the Penan have been very cooperative with the government’s vaccination drive.
“It could be true that some are scared, but the reports we receive are that they have no problems with the COVID vaccine,” he said. “I guess that naturally they are quite scared of needles. I may be wrong, but this is from my personal experience.
“The Penan are quite simple in their thinking.”
Two Penan have died from COVID-19 in Telang Usan and many villages have been placed under a lockdown measure known as the emergency movement control order. Under this order, police officers have erected barbed wire around affected settlement. In some cases, villagers are transported to a quarantine center in the city of Miri where, Ngau said, they have a direct line to their assemblyman.
“As the people’s representative who mixes with the natives, I can say we do the true government effort. There is trust among all native communities in Sarawak for the current government,” he said.
Kallang disagreed. “Mr. Ngau is belittling them. The Penans have been bullied a lot in the past over logging — this is why they don’t have any trust,” he said.
“The government has to respect the Penans and listen to them. They know what they need and how we can support them in what they need.”
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