Why 5 S’poreans went to haze central in Indonesia to distribute N95 masks

Why 5 S’poreans went to haze central in Indonesia to distribute N95 masks
Relief.SG chief executive Jonathan How helping a child put on a mask while her parents look on. The mission team saw children running around in schoolyards unmasked despite the PSI being 1,500. Photo: Edwin Koo
Published: 4:16 AM, October 16, 2015
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There has been no shortage of views with regards to the haze afflicting Singapore and the region of late. In particular, there have been strong reactions to the Indonesian government’s apparent flip-flop over foreign help and especially on Vice-President Jusuf Kalla’s now infamous remarks on Singapore’s apparent lack of gratitude. We have these views because we have been affected by the haze.

However, nowhere does the haze affect people more than in Sumatra and, more so, in Kalimantan where PSI levels have gone to as high as 2,600. This is what led local non-governmental organisation (NGO) (RSG) to organise a mission to collect — in collaboration with mask collection initiative Let’s Help Kalimantan — and distribute N95 masks to the people of the Central Kalimantan city of Palangkaraya.

Each one of us wanted to bring relief to the people of Kalimantan and help them cope with the haze. However, none of us ever felt that N95 masks alone would solve the problem. Photographer Edwin Koo, who was part of the team, puts it best with this Facebook post: “The distinction here we need to make is between the real culprits and the people of Kalimantan who are suffering like us. Actually it’s worse for them. PSI 1,500 is no joke. And even in these circumstances, the authorities are not making N95 available. Perhaps it’s better not to? Giving the N95 acknowledges the severity of the problem. Plus it is 3-4 times more expensive than a surgical mask, which is commonly used but completely cosmetic.

“We know we cannot supply masks forever. We know N95 is not a solution for forest fires. But do we let the common people languish in the smoke, or do we help them cope and live to fight a bigger battle? Go figure. Imagine if in Singapore, our shops didn’t have N95 masks and the authorities don’t release PSI readings. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a minute.”

And so we did. We arrived late on Oct 5 and the first thing that struck us as we moved 86 boxes of 25,000 masks onto pick-up trucks was how the air smelt of burning wood.

Besides distributing masks to people, we also spent significant time conducting train-the-trainers sessions to show local volunteers and health professionals the importance and correct use of N95 masks. We did not want to just give masks out, but also explain why people really needed to wear them, and wear them correctly.

Along the way, we met many people, including fire-fighters and members of the Indonesian army who were busy digging canals to keep the peatlands wet and lower its chances of burning — an initiative of President Joko Widodo. During a stopover at a nature reserve, we even chanced upon a small peatland fire and saw how hard it was for the fire-fighters to put it out.

One thing that stuck with us most was how stoic the people of Kalimantan were in putting up with the choking air. Most were not wearing masks and those who were used only surgical masks. Children were running around in schoolyards “unmasked” and teens were exerting themselves playing basketball despite the PSI being 1,500.

People were seeking normalcy amid what a friend had described as scenes from the horror video game Silent Hill.

However, behind the stoic defiance was a sense of resignation. This is perhaps borne out of an acceptance that the haze was an annual affair, sparked off by the dry season.

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