Great Need to Network Anti-pandemic Initiatives

By Lee Khiam Jin

Published on 2021-06-28 Updated 2021-07-06

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ONE YEAR ON, and Malaysia's battle against Covid-19 is at its fiercest. As of June 18, 4,202 lives had been lost, a distressing jump up from 501 on January 5.

All hands are on deck. The government is setting up field ICUs and low-risk Covid-19 quarantine and treatment centres.

In Penang, social organisations are fully mobilised as well. Mutiara Food Bank is providing free meals for the needy; Sikh United is distributing care packs to the homeless; and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merits Society is supporting the Penang State Government in setting up a low-risk Covid-19 centre at the Caring Society Complex and donating thousands of personal protective equipment (PPEs), face masks and shields, isolation gowns, gloves and hundreds of beds to hospitals and various federal and state government agencies.

However, these laudable efforts, guided as they are by the organisational values, capabilities and knowledge of the individual civil society organisation (CSO) would be much more effective if they were more connected through sharing of knowledge, coordinating of efforts, and disseminating of information.

In short, the efficiency of CSO work in Penang needs to be raised in the face of the crisis. These are not normal times. First off, the following conditions need to be acknowledged if we are to respond better to the crisis: i) varied organisational values and objectives; ii) a general lack of interaction among CSOs even before the pandemic; and iii) the absence of effective coordination and collaborative mechanism among CSOs during the pandemic.

Low-risk Covid-19 centre at the Caring Society Complex. Photo: Buletin Mutiara

Connecting CSOs is never an easy matter. In practice, collaboration between these organisations is difficult to develop, let alone maintain (Connelly, Zhang, & Faerman, 2008; Huxham, 1996; Uhr, 2017). But be that as it may, some organisations in neighbouring Indonesia have been setting some good examples for us to follow, if not to emulate. For example, Indonesian CSOs formed a "network-of-networks", which has bolstered the country's efforts in containing the pandemic. The 108-year-old Muhammadiyah, perhaps the second largest Islamic humanitarian organisation in the country, was instrumental in bringing together at least 13 agencies, including NGOs, government and multiple Muhammadiyah sister agencies to establish the multi-stakeholder Muhammadiyah Covid-19 Command Centre (MCCC), to address challenges facing the underprivileged (Muhammadiyah, 2020).

From March to November 2020, the MCCC successfully raised USD21.6mil. This sum was used to support 28 million Indonesians, in addition to arranging for 4,560 confirmed Covid-19 carriers, 4,188 suspected cases and 853 probable cases to receive free treatment at 82 Muhammadiyah Aisyiyah hospitals (Syifa, 2020).

Another successful CSO coordination platform is SEJAJAR, or the Secretariat of Indonesia CSO-NGO network-of-networks, a cross-network and cross-sector collaboration based on shared humanitarian principles. It aims "to provide and develop services … to CSOs-NGOs and the general public in terms of information exchange, strategy development, and collaboration among fellow CSOs themselves, in the national, provincial and district/city levels and even at the grassroots, and with government and other stakeholders" (SEJAJAR internal document, 2021).

Established in March 2020, it now brings together 20 national CSO networks with approximately 500 CSO members at the provincial level. SEJAJAR is the result of the dedicated and effective coordination of its three founders – Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Centre (MDMC), Oxfam and Pujiono Centre. MDMC is an independent and specialised disaster management centre under the auspices of the Muhammadiyah movement (Hilman, 2017), which provides leadership and secretariat support in this effort.

As of December 2020, SEJAJAR had received funding and in-kind assistance from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Singapore's Temasek Foundation, USAID and WHO for its members' various humanitarian programmes carried out nationwide. DFAT, for instance, contributed one million face masks (Informal conversation with a leader from MDMC, December 16, 2020). These generous funding and in-kind assistance were made possible mainly because SEJAJAR brings the common objectives of fellow CSOs to the forefront of the international society.

To be sure, there has been movement in this direction as well in Malaysia. The Malaysian Coordination and Action Hub (Match) was formed in May 2020 by several government agencies and local CSOs. The first of its kind in the country, this collaboration hub attempts to streamline humanitarian aid delivery through official data analysis for joint action between CSOs and public agencies.

Malaysian Coordination and Action Hub. From left: Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, Ching-Fong Ong, Shahira Ahmed Bazari and Tan Sri Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz Sultan Abdul Halim. Photo: Sam Fong/The Edge

Its members include the Malaysian Red Crescent Society, Yayasan Hasanah, the Welfare Department, the Boston Consulting Group, Mercy Malaysia, the National Security Council and Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, who serves as Special Advisor (Gopinath, 2020).

However, perhaps because Match's initiatives tend to be too high-level and strategic-centric, its existence is not widely known. Its efforts do not seem to cover the whole country either; there is no CSO representation from the northern region.

It would certainly be beneficial if Penang-based NGOs and CSOs are connected through a common network or were part of the existing national network; these often resource-strapped organisations could gain easy and timely access to official information and make connections with well-positioned donors and partners.

Synergising government and societal efforts to fight the disease should be the major concern at the moment.

Lee Khiam Jin

A former officer of the UN and ASEAN intergovernmental body, with a focus on tackling all matters related to disasters. He earned his PhD on emergency management from New Zealand in 2020.