Indigenous Malaysians flee to forests to escape coronavirus

KUALA LUMPUR: After blocking the entrance to their village with logs, half of the Khmeri people fled to the surrounding forest in fear when the coronavirus spread in Malaysia, infecting the first indigenous person 'Orang Asli'.

We will return to the forest to isolate ourselves and find food for ourselves, villager and activist Bedul Chemai told Reuters by telephone from Jemeri in Pahang state, Malaysia.

We know how to get food from forests and there are some things we can plant there.

Original people 'Orang Asli' are among the poorest and most vulnerable in Malaysia, which has the highest number of reported infections in Southeast Asia.

The first Orang Asli infection was detected last week.

A three-year-old boy from a village outside Cameron Highlands, a popular tourist spot, tested positive for the virus, Orang Asli Development Department CEO Juli Edo told Reuters.

The village has been closed, along with another where an infection is suspected. It was unclear how the boy had been infected, Juli said.

The Orang Asli are descendants of the earliest known inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, numbering around 200,000.

As Malaysia imposed strict movement restrictions this month to try to stop the spread of a virus that has infected more than 3,000 people locally and killed 50, the Orang Asli said they had been particularly affected.

Many struggle to find food after their small income from daily vegetable, fruit and rubber sales has been cut, while some fear going to the cities to buy food due to concerns about contracting the virus.

FEARS OF DISEASE

Orang Asli are vulnerable to disease due to factors including poverty and malnutrition. Its reported poverty rate of over 30% compares to the Malaysian average of 0.4%.

Last year, an indigenous village in northeast peninsular Malaysia saw 15 deaths and dozens fell ill with measles.

Shaq Koyok, an activist from the Temuan tribe, said that people in his village, about 60 km (40 miles) from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, had been blocked.

Even I cannot go to the village, said Shaq, who lives in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Indigenous populations around the world, in Australia, Canada and Brazil, have closed their borders to protect communities, as the coronavirus, which has infected more than a million people and killed some 52,000 worldwide, continues to spread.

For decades, Orang Asli say they have seen an invasion of their traditional lands, with palm oil and wood companies cutting down forests.

In some of these villages, they cannot even go out into the forests to look for food, said Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar of Klima Action Malaysia, part of a collective that is raising money for the Orang Asli communities.

A group that has been trying to raise funds for the Orang Asli said it had so many requests for help that it tripled its original fundraising goal.

But the government's efforts to bring food to some 50,000 Orang Asli families were delayed by the groups' own efforts to isolate themselves.

An old man from the village told me they will either die from the virus or starve, Ili Nadiah said.

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