By Fr Alvin Ng, SJ
KUCHING — The nationwide response to the Covid-19 pandemic known as the Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18 March 2020 caught many by surprise, not so much by the fact of its implementation or the strictness of its adherence to, but more by the prolongation of the lockdown.
Expectations that it would last anywhere from 14 days to a month soon melted as the MCO dragged into weeks and months (at the time of writing, the MCO has entered its “conditional” phase and projected to tentatively end on 9 June 2020). While this is all necessary and for the greater common good of flattening the infection curve and therefore not overwhelming our healthcare system, it has also brought a humanitarian crisis of massive job losses and food shortages among those who are daily paid for their labour. A large proportion of this group is none other than the foreign migrants in our midst.
Eking out a subsistence living even in the best of times, the MCO has proven disastrous for many migrants who firstly, could not travel home because of the closure of our borders and secondly, could not get out of their shanty dwellings to buy food on account of either having used up their savings (as the MCO prolonged) or fear of being stopped by the authorities at road blocks. While some employers did provide basic rations, this ran out after the few first weeks. A number of the migrant communities were remotely located and nowhere near to a sundry shop, let alone a supermarket, to allow for the purchase of basic supplies. Being foreigners, they did not qualify for government assistance either. In short, their situation deteriorated rapidly.
Responding to the calls for help from the communities within the city and the greater Kuching area, the Ministry to Migrants of the Archdiocese of Kuching embarked on a food aid distribution after collecting data on migrants’ numbers, location and types of aid needed. With immediate support from Archbishop Simon Poh, who made the formal application to the State Welfare Department as well as the State Police to distribute food aid during the MCO, things started to happen.
With funding coming from the archdiocese as well as generous contributions from parishioners, a team of a dozen volunteers gathered (with safe distancing, face mask and face shield) to load 3 vans (two on kind loan from St. Peter’s College) and private MPVs with food packs prepared by contracted supermarkets. Over 3 days (6, 7 and 9 May 2020), the food aid convoy travelled all over the city and its outskirts as far as Samarahan and into the district of Bau to effect the distribution. In total, 525 migrants received 445 packs of food supplies good for 2 weeks. Some were also given small cash handouts as well as milk powder for families with infants.
The reaction from the migrants speak for themselves as numerous texts flowed in with messages of gratitude.
The Ministry to Migrants is well aware that these brothers and sisters helped are just the representative faces of many, many more who continue to be in need of dire assistance. It will be the combined effort of all aid agencies, church groups, NGOs, other religious and secular groups, in collaboration with the government and with each other, that will ultimately see to it that as many migrants are reached as logistically possible.
For the interim, the message must go out that there are people in need all around, always but especially in this time of the coronavirus lockdown. Whether they be locals or foreigners, all are the face of Christ whom everyone is called to serve. Starting with a prayer and a thought for them, one can progress on to financial aid and the physical lending of a hand in giving that first cup of cold water in the Lord’s name (Mt. 10:42). Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam!