We don’t know for sure, but they could help and they can’t hurt.

– Dr. Linsey Marr, American scientist

As Malaysia prepares to implement the compulsory “mask up” order on Aug 1, Sarawak will be burdened with a multitude of issues.

If it is easy to monitor the crowded places in the Peninsular, how would they cope with sparsely-populated Sarawak with hundreds of small villages distributed over 124,500 sq km in a land as big as Malaya.

In Malaya, with its population of at least 25 million, its cities and major towns are always crowded.

Even though Sarawak has 11 administrative “divisions” similar to Malaya’s 11 states, Kuching is the only place that can be considered “crowded”.

We must also not forget that the majority of the people of Sarawak are natives who live in more than 5,000 villages and longhouses, many in remote and inaccessible enclaves, in a country with thousands of kilometres of rivers and tributaries.

So would they have to undergo similar “mask-up” regulations or follow the national norm?

Over the last five months, only Kuching and its neighbours Saarahan, Serian and Bau shared the bulk of Sarawak’s 600 plus Covid-19 cases. Would the native enclave have to conform or face the music?

Yet despite this nearly all the rural divisions have been declared as “green zones” where the coronavirus is almost non-existent, thankfully because of poor communication and isolation.

As such, it will be a gargantuan task monitoring the movement of people whose lifestyle is different from the bulk of the teetotal neighbours from across the South China Sea.

The Sarawak police already have their hands full and it will be not easy sending the army, Rela and “Tentera Wataniah” to the rural outback to warn, reprimand or arrest those who defy the order.

I have travelled to most parts of rural Sarawak to understand how difficult it will be to ensure the order is fully implemented.

For example, in Kuching alone there are scores of native market bazaars along the old Kuching-Bau-Lundu-Sematan road, and lately, rumah asap or smoke houses, the latest fad.

But even without the rumah asap the Dayaks have their weekly, and sometimes daily drinking plus barbecue sessions. Even along the new Pan Borneo Highway, one can find dozens of happy-go-lucky groups around the vicinity.

From Bau, there is an unofficial side road leading from Jambusan to Annah Rais in Padawan, which also shares the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

I’ve been to many unvisited crowded border villages where locals mingle with their Indonesian counterparts! Who is going to monitor them?

If you cross over from Padawan to Serian via the many feeder roads, you will come across dozens more Bidayuh villages stretching as far out as the Tebakang-Mongkos border and the Tebebu immigration checkpoint.

Leave Serian and head north, you will be in Simanggang. 

From Pantu and up the Batang Strap and Bantin-Lingga on the coast, crocodiles share the waterways!

Pantu has a famous pasar tamu where natives from Kalimantan nip across the Kelingkang Mountain Range on a daily basis to sell their produce and handicraft.

I’m telling you all this so that people from the other side of the South China Sea will understand the kind of logistics involved in masking Sarawak.

Interestingly, Sarawakians have been told to wear disposable or reusable face masks that must be based on specifications set by WHO and guidelines issued by the Health Ministry.

A recent report added: “The ministry will provide the specification and we will disseminate this information through the media so that they can sew their own face masks.”

But how do you communicate with folks in remote areas that do not even have Internet access?

And where will a remote longhouse in Ulu Kapit, Upper Belaga or Baram obtain a sewing machine to do this?

In fact, sewing machines are a novelty, especially in the Penan hinterland, where there are no less than 200 villages.

I’ve travelled a fair bit to realise that a large number of people in up-river towns and bazaars can be defiant if they choose.

I spoke to a budding opposition from Kapit who said that the constituents loyal to him may defy the order. He said: “You start arresting my constituents and see what happens!”

So, all the best in this noble fight to curb the corona virus scourge!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.