Commentary

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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Although the man-in-the-street knows that the haze is bad for his health, he also believes that he is powerless to do anything about it. Many of the locals cannot afford the N95s. A fresh graduate who just started working told us that there was not much left from his S$180 monthly salary to get N95 protection for his family.

NO INFORMATION AND MISINFORMATION

But the bigger problem is a lack of information. There is no regular publicly available information on the PSI. The only PSI display, in the middle of town, was not working. Most people can tell if the haze is better or worse at a given time, but few knew that the PSI has been more than 500 for the past few weeks.

In fact, it hovered between 900 and 1,500 during the three days we were there. The only source of PSI information is the local meteorological station. But it does not release the information publicly. And its measurements are up to only PM10 (particulate matter up to 10 micrometres in size) levels.

Without knowing that the air quality has long surpassed hazardous levels, people do not feel alarmed. There is also little or no awareness — even among healthcare professionals — of the dangers of PM2.5 particles, which may remain at hazardous levels even when the air seems clearer.

There is also a lot of misinformation going around. Some have been told that wearing surgical masks would suffice, especially ones that have been dampened by water. The very few who have N95-type of masks wear them wrongly. There are even opportunists marketing small cans of pure oxygen as respite against the haze.

It was clear to us that the unusually long haze season was wearing people down. Everyone we spoke to, including an elderly firefighter who had lived through the 1997-98 and 2006 haze episodes felt that this was the worst in his living memory. Our local NGO partners tell of a spike in cases of the elderly, very young and those with infirmities passing on prematurely from respiratory illnesses. They also tell us that the poor visibility caused by thick haze has claimed more lives in traffic accidents. People are starting to get angry.

We left Palangkaraya with a better appreciation of what the people of Central Kalimantan have to put up with. We admire their strength, understand their plight and want to show them that most Singaporeans are with them.

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