Penans in Baram open to getting Covid-19 vaccinations after three fatalities, surge in cases

Dennis (standing, fifth left) with the Penans of Long Buang Sungai Apoh after their first vaccination dose at the Long Bemang PPV on July 12, 2021.

By Lian Cheng

KUCHING, July 13: Three deaths and over two hundred Covid-19 infections coupled with persistent persuasion from the authorities have compelled more than 1,000 Penans in the Baram District to get vaccinated against the deadly virus to date.

Telang Usan assemblyman Dennis Ngau who has never given up on the Penan community said more effort will be put in so that all 11,000 eligible Penans spread across 48 settlements in Baram District will be vaccinated.

“More and more Penans are now coming voluntarily for vaccinations at centres nearest to them. Many of them have travelled three to four hours to get vaccinated,” Dennis told DayakDaily.

To vaccinate the Penans, at least eight vaccination centres have been set up at Long Bidian, Long Sang, Long Lama, Long Miri, Long Pilah, Long Loyang, Long Kevok and Long Nahah’A in Baram District.

Prior to the recent success, Dennis said the programme to inoculate the community was met with indifference as the Penans were influenced by negative information with regards to vaccination on social media despite the general misconception that rural people are deprived by Internet access.

“We heard a lot that the rural people have no access to Internet. What I have witnessed is that, they received a lot of negative information on vaccination through social media including the vaccines being from Satan and all that,” Dennis told DayakDaily.

A group of Penans pose for a group photo after their vaccinations at Long Bidian.

What have turned the Penan people around to be willing to receive vaccinations were the three Covid-19 fatalities involving their fellow tribespeople. Recently, three Penan women from Long Luteng, Long Man and Long Sayan respectively had died from the coronavirus. Their passings got the Penan community to think hard and reevaluate their view on vaccinations.

The three deaths came about after a Covid-19 outbreak in the Penan community involving more than 200 Penans from Long Win, Long Kevok, Long Luteng, Long Latei, Long Lunyin and Long Tepen as well as three logging camps within the vicinity of these Penan settlements. Those found to be infected with Covid-19 were brought to Miri to be quarantined.

Despite being unable to trace the source of this outbreak, the fact remains the Penans are susceptible to the deadly virus, and that had changed the minds of the Penans.

“And we did not give up on them despite their initial resentment towards vaccinations. Through our outreach programme, I went to their villages with the district officer, district office staff, Health Ministry personnel, and village chiefs to explain to them.

“It is through our concerted effort that we managed to persuade them not to believe in what they had learnt from social media but that the vaccines are just part of the thousands of medicines approved by the government curing illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches. It is the same government that approves the vaccines,” said Dennis.

Due to the distance between Penan villages and vaccination centres, the Penans need to take a four-wheel-drive journey of three to four hours to get inoculated.

It was tough from the beginning, but the three deaths and the more than 200 infections among the Penan had opened a crack where verbal persuasion started to sink in

“The deaths and infections showed that the government did not lie to them about the danger Covid-19 can bring about. There is truth in what we say. Now more and more of them are coming for the vaccination.”

Dennis said more Penans are willing to come forward to get vaccinated but they are hindered by the long distance they need to travel between their villages and the vaccination centres. Many of them do not have the means of transport to get to vaccination centres nearest to them.

“That is why, I am now requesting for Cansino which only requires one jab (to fully vaccinate). We are now waiting for Cansino to arrive, so that we can move form longhouse to longhouse to vaccinate them,” said Dennis.

There are in total about 16,000 Penans in Baram District and 11,000 are above 18 years of age, and thus are eligible for vaccination. — DayakDaily