Handling Covid-19 in Sarawak

Deputy Chief Minister and SDMC chairman Datuk Amar Douglas. Uggah.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the world. To date, about 110 million people have been infected with death rates of up to 2.5 million worldwide.

Following is the TVS’ recent interview with State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) chairman, Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, who is also Deputy Chief Minister, on this issue.

TVS: What is the possible cause of the increase in cases in Sarawak which has now reached more than 7,000 cases?

Uggah: Most of the positive Covid-19 cases in Sarawak last year were due to import cases. Therefore, since Oct 3 last year, we have made it mandatory for anyone who wants to enter this state (whether from Malaya, Sabah or abroad) to undergo quarantine. However, the increase in individual admissions to Sarawak could not be accommodated by existing quarantine centres (including hotels). To overcome this problem, we have instructed every individual who enters Sarawak to undergo self-quarantine in their respective homes — this was the trigger for the Pasai Cluster!

The Pasai Cluster in Sibu was detected by the State Health Department on Jan 9 after 38 positive cases were recorded from the cluster, including its index case (Case 1,175) who tested positive on Jan 7. The index case returned from Johor Bahru via Kuala Lumpur on Firefly FY1335 flight at 8am (seat 5A) and then took the Malaysia Airlines MH2536 (Seat 20D) flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching at 1.35pm on Dec 29. Upon arrival at Kuching International Airport, she was swabbed for the first time and the result was negative. She then proceeded to Sibu on AirAsia AK6466 (Seat 24D) and arrived in Sibu at 8.50pm, where she was instructed to undergo home quarantine at Rumah Langi Ambau Douglas to attend her father’s funeral. This case spread the virus very quickly as residents of any longhouse usually gather in large numbers every time there is an event.

To prevent such cases from recurring, the government has set new standard operating procedures (SOPs) where only 30 people are allowed to attend a funeral. In this regard, we hope that community leaders will ensure that any event held in their respective areas complies with the SOPs set.

What is the strategy taken to reduce the number of positive Covid-19 cases in longhouses?

We impose movement restriction on any longhouse if its occupants tested positive for the virus. This approach is seen as effective because they (longhouse residents) can no longer go out indiscriminately. In addition, we also rely on the longhouse chiefs to ensure that their residents follow the SOPs.

What is the preparation of the Sarawak government in receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine?

Sarawak is vast and for that reason, we need to arrange logistics carefully so that all residents, both urban and rural, receive the vaccine. The Health Ministry had also conducted a dry run by bringing the vaccine sample to Belaga on Jan 20. We have also identified seven locations throughout the state to store the vaccine.

What about other preparations?

In implementing vaccination, we definitely need a lot of manpower to maintain security and control the situation as we want the people to comply with the SOPs set such as the physical distancing. At the same time, we will also ensure that any problems that may arise can be resolved as best as possible. Apart from that, we will try to ensure that the people remain patient when the vaccination process is carried out.

What are the possible challenges that the staff will face?

Since it (the vaccination process) is a new process in our country, the staff, especially those responsible for injection process, are required to adapt themselves. However, our main challenge is how we can ensure that the vaccines, which need to be transported over long distances, are still good and usable. Other challenges also include the adequacy of the number of vaccines as foreign workers should also be vaccinated.

What are your views on the various reactions of society to the reception of this vaccine?

Although there are many who are fully prepared to receive this vaccine, there are still others who are concerned about its side effects. To overcome this problem, we will ensure that both urban and rural communities are given complete information about the vaccines they will receive. In this regard, we have set up an expert group of 10 scientists led by Dr Andrew Kiyu. Their role is to provide recommendations to the Sarawak government on the types of vaccines that should be purchased and they are also to be advisors, especially in relation to the benefits of vaccines to the community.

Regarding the implementation of the vaccine programme, we have three phases which will involve about 97,000 frontliners in the first phase, those who are 60 years old and with comorbidities in the second phase and other citizens aged 18 and above for the last phase. However, the planning process depends after the arrival of the vaccines.

In the meantime, the Health Ministry chose Belaga to carry out the dry run because we want to monitor the vaccine’s performance if it was taken to a far place and how it is stored.

Why should Sarawakians receive the vaccine?

Vaccine injections are important because they are able to build immunity against viral attacks. Therefore, we should receive this vaccine so that we can all live a normal life again.

What is the approach to making sure people don’t worry about receiving the vaccine?

A committee led by the Sarawak Public Communications Unit (Ukas) and several other agencies including Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) will help us convey the message about the benefits of the vaccine and its effectiveness in foreign countries. We want the people to be exposed to accurate information based on science and not baseless rumours.

What about preparations if something like this happens again?

We will always strengthen the SDMC, upgrade our health facilities and plan to set up an infectious disease centre. In addition, we should also add screening facilities. We are now able to handle up to 6,500 screenings a day with the support of the private sector, compared to previously when we could only handle about 4,000 screenings — this is why samples take up to between six and seven days to yield results.

Before ending our segment, what are your expectations?

My hope is that the people of Sarawak would continue to unite and work together in the face of any obstacles. I believe that when Covid-19 subsides, and as long as we are united, we would be able to continue to develop Sarawak by 2030, as envisioned by our chief minister.