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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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) Relief.sg (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.

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.

The haze is a complex multi-faceted problem that requires people to come together. More importantly, no solution is going to work without the Indonesian people, especially the man-in-the-street trying to go about his daily life struggling with only a handkerchief amid the thick yellowish haze.

On the ground, our Indonesian NGO counterparts and us continue to work hard to inform the people in Palangkaraya of the hazards of the haze and how the correct use of N95 masks can help them cope. We want to let our Indonesian neighbours know that they are not alone.

More importantly, we hope that each mask that we give out can rally people at ground zero into calling on his or her government to do more. That is the true value of the N95 masks we give out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Walter Chia is a member of the Relief.sg advisory committee and has volunteered for several of its missions. RSG volunteers are planning more N95 mask-distribution missions to Central Kalimantan and even planning to extend one to Sumatra. The organisation will also be sharing its recent experience in Central Kalimantan with the public at 2pm on Saturday at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ public exhibition ‘Haze: Know It. Stop it.’ at the nex shopping mall at Serangoon Central.

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