Those tasked with managing Covid-19 have let Sarawakians down – John Teo

By John Teo

SARAWAK passed a grim milestone in the year-old battle against the Covid-19 pandemic on April 13 when its daily tally of cases chalked a record high of over 600 just as its most notorious infection cluster, the so-called Pasai cluster, officially came to an end.

The cluster started in the final days of last year when an infected local resident returned from Johor for a funeral in a longhouse, which was allowed to go on for three consecutive days, with many attending from nearby longhouses and standard operating procedures, such as social distancing, all but ignored.

This cluster contributed nearly 2,700 cases and 29 deaths, with six generations of infections spreading across 58 longhouses, mostly in central Sarawak, by the time it ended. Sibu, the major urban centre of central Sarawak, bore the brunt of the community spread. Sibu Hospital has been stretched to its limits to cope with the pandemic.

Almost like a medical equivalent of an earthquake with its epicentre spreading further afield to other major concentrations of population, such as Bintulu, Miri, Kapit and Betong, the ghastly toll has so far seen the entire state — over 20,000 cases and just shy of 130 deaths as of the above date.

Exactly how this has come to pass is all the more regrettable and mystifying given that Sarawak has been imposing among the severest quarantine conditions in the country on people coming from out of the state. It includes a mandatory full 14 days sequestered in hotels turned quarantine centres.

There had been talks of glaring chinks in this supposedly ironclad armour. Among them, the fact that many Sibu hotels — invariably trophies of their tycoon owners — would remain empty than be turned into quarantine centres. Sibu, with direct air links to cities outside the state, thus became a jumping-off point for returning Sarawakians who wish to avoid strict quarantine protocols elsewhere in the state.

Not for the first time, those tasked with keeping tabs on infections entering the far-flung state have let its residents down. It was almost the same rather lacklustre efforts at a clampdown that prevented a rabies outbreak originating from across the border in Kalimantan, Indonesia, from being isolated and confined to the borderlands and instead allowing it to leisurely course through the entire length and breadth of the state over several years.

The state has a special standing State Disaster Management Committee set up for such unexpected health emergencies or other natural calamities. It is headed by the state’s second-in-command, its first deputy chief minister.

Sometimes, the committee appears to crawl at the pace of the bureaucratic inertia it was designed to overcome. For example, it lets loud interested parties, such as dog-lovers, get in the way of countering the rabies outbreak aggressively.

As the state keeps hogging unwanted news headlines with national chart-busting Covid-19 caseloads, the saving grace may well be a promised swifter state rollout of mass vaccinations than will be the case nationally. The state government hopes to complete its vaccination campaign until it achieves herd-immunity levels by August.

In this, Sarawak has so far gone off to a promising start and must hope that its political leaders’ efforts to persuade their national counterparts for quicker delivery of the state’s allotted vaccine doses bear fruit.

A pandemic happens but once a century, and perhaps, some shortcomings the state has been exposed to in overcoming it may be excusable. Still, it has come with a terrible toll on lives and businesses lost or otherwise disrupted.

Nevertheless, there must be useful lessons learned, if not to prepare for the next pandemic, to ensure the state’s disaster-preparedness machinery is fine-tuned so that it becomes fit for purpose to face any eventuality, be it epidemics, which now show up with greater frequency, or the more routine disruptions
that bad weather occasionally brings.

This piece by the Kuching-based writer first appeared in the New Straits Times. The views here do not necessarily reflect those of this portal.