The Health Minister, Dzulkefly Ahmad seemed to have confirmed the analysis of activists Colin Nicholas and Dr. Steven Chow that the Kampong Kuala Koh tragedy where 14 Bateq villagers had died since early May is not so much a medical problem but a direct result of what happens when people’s rights to their customary lands are not recognised and that land is destroyed.
Nicholas, the executive director of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), said that after the land had been taken away from the Bateqs by the Kelantan state government and the destruction of their resource base and their traditional way of life, they became malnourished and underweight, lowering their resistance to many common ailments, whether pneumonia, tuberculosis or even diarrhoea, resulting in fatalities..
Chow, the team leader of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia (FPMPAM) medical outreach programme visited Kampung Kuala Koh just a week before the tragedy unfolded.
He was appalled by the conditions in the village and said this was “a community left behind, dying from neglect”.
He said: “It was appalling. There was no running water. All the water tanks were empty. Pipes were broken. All we had was the bottled water that we brought along for the patients and the medical team.
“With no running water, the standard of sanitation was terrible. We saw patients from more than 60 families, many with multiple health problems. Almost all had infections affecting either the respiratory or gastrointestinal (systems), or the skin.
“There were 32 cases of tinea imbricata (an extensive fungal skin infection), the so-called ‘mysterious skin disease’. Almost all the children had worm infestation and malnutrition.
“We also heard that the tok batin (village head) and his brother had died earlier, before the recently reported spate of deaths. Something is obviously not right.”
The meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail yesterday is to be commended for the despatch of necessary supplements and supplies to the area, but the root cause of the problem of malnourishment and immunocompromise of the Orang Asli must be addressed.
While the immediate task is the dispatch of necessary supplements and supplies to Kampong Kuala Koh, the equally important task to ensure that there will not be a second Kampong Kuala Koh tragedy in any part of the country must be urgently addressed, and the authorities must conduct an immediate survey to detect and identify any other Orang Asli community which is suffering from malnourishment and immunocompromise, making them vulnerable and susceptible to fatalities.
It is clear that the National Conference “Upholding the Rjghts of Orang Asli” in Putrajaya in April had never anticipated the Kampong Kuala Koh tragedy.
Let it be a lesson to all Malaysians – both the authorities and the citizenry.