At least 79 BaSulTa-bound stranded residents are COVID-19-positive

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 14 July) – At least 79 out of 405 residents from Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi who were stranded in Manila, supposedly shipped to Zamboanga City but were offloaded in Cagayan de Oro City and are now in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, have tested positive for COVID-19, the Bangsamoro region’s Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 said.

The 405 rerouted locally stranded individuals bound for the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi are swabbed for COVID-19 laboratory test upon arrival at the Cotabato Sanitarium, one of four government isolation facilities in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao in the wee hours of 10 July 2020. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

“Our treatment for them now is that they are all potentially infected,” said Dr. Ameril Usman, head of the Rapid Epidemiology Surveillance Unit (RESU) of the Bangsamoro Ministry of Health, adding that they “do not know at this point of time what is the degree of their contact to each other.”

Of the 79 infected, 43 are from Basilan, 33 from Sulu and 3 from Tawi-tawi.

The Bangsamoro IATF recommended the 79 and the rest of the islanders to undergo 14-day quarantine in four isolation facilities.

Bangsamoro Chief Minister Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim had called for the emergency IATF meeting to address this issue.

The number of positives is expected to increase when all the results of the swab tests for Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test shall have been released, Local Governments Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, spokesperson of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), said.

“We worked back on the process, since they boarded the boat, were offloaded in Cagayan de Oro, stayed there, traveled by bus going to the Bangsamoro facility. We felt then in all honesty, there is no chance that they have not been contaminated as they mixed with each other along their journey” he said.

The islanders left Manila on July 4, arrived in Cagayan de Oro afternoon of July 7, and in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao in the early hours of July 10.

The BaSulTa residents arrived on July 7 in Cagayan de Oro, at least half a day’s travel by bus, even as the nearest port to the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi would have been Zamboanga City.

The 405 rerouted locally stranded individuals bound for the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi arrive in 17 buses at a government COVID-19 isolation facility in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao in the wee hours of 10 July 2020. They were fetched in Cagayan de Oro City. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

No coordination, no passenger manifest

Sinarimbo said he was informed about the arrival from Manila of 414 Bangsamoro residents in Cagayan de Oro on the day they arrived. He said he contacted the governors of the three island provinces who learned about the arrival of their constituents from Sinarimbo.

The Department of Interior and Local Government in Northern Mindanao informed Sinarimbo that upon validation, the number of arrivals was 499.

Sinarimbo said the initial figure of 414 that was told him, the DILG Northern Mindanao figure of 499 in Cagayan de Oro and the number of people swabbed in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao – 405 – differ. How many of them actually boarded the ship from Manila has remained a mystery as Sinarimbo pointed out that neither the BARMM nor the local government units received from the Hatid Tulong Program (HTP) a list of passengers.

HTP is a national program that is supposed to assist some 5,000 stranded individuals in Manila return to their provinces. But Sinarimbo said HTP did not coordinate with the regional and provincial government in the Bangsamoro region.

Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), the officer in charge of HTP, told MindaNews on July 7 that the passengers on board 2Go Shipping’s MV St. Pope John Paul, were informed they would dock in Cagayan de Oro.

“It was explained to them. Di na maka-proceed ang 2Go kasi ang barko (It could not proceed to Zamboanga because the boat) is compelled to dock due to cargoes to be unloaded. More so, the vessel is required to be back in Manila kasi need to ferry passengers as schedule(d),” Encabo told MindaNews.

“If mag-proceed sa Zambo, magkaroon ng delay sa turnaround time and in effect, magkakaroon ng increase of stranded passengers” (If it proceeds to Zamboanga, there would be a delay in the turnaround time and in effect, there will be an increase in the number of stranded passengers), Encabo said.

The 405 rerouted locally stranded individuals bound for the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi are temporarily housed in four government COVID-D19 isolation facilities in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, among them the Cotabato Sanitarium. They arrived in 17 buses in the wee hours of 10 July 2020 coming from Cagayan de Oro City. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

Stranded in Manila, in CDO, in Sultan Kudarat

Sinarimbo said the islanders were supposed to be brought to Zamboanga City by bus on July 9 as it has the port nearest to the island provinces but Zamboanga City, also overwhelmed by the number of LSIs arriving, had asked that the islanders be in transit only in the city, direct to the port where their Local Government Units will fetch them.

Basilan at that time had just suspended receiving LSIs until July 21 as it could no longer accommodate new arrivals.

“We are asking the Hatid Tulong people to give us time to prepare for the facilities – quarantine area particularly for them only because almost all our quarantine areas at the city and municipal level are full,” Governor Jim S. Hataman Salliman told MindaNews on July 8.

He said this is the reason why they asked the National Task Force Against COVID-19 to give them “15 days breathing space” so they could declog their quarantine areas. He said many of their frontliners dealing with the LSIs and inter-agency task force members are on quarantine, having been exposed to the LSIs.

The Tawi-tawi government had also just suspended transport to and from the island as it had just recorded its first case of COVID-19.

The province of Sulu sent no response then, Sinarimbo said.

Due to these constraints, the Bangsamoro Government opted to fetch them in Cagayan de Oro and on board 17 buses, brought them to Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao where they are housed in five quarantine facilities.

Sinarimbo said arrangements had been made for the Western Mindanao Command to deploy three naval ships to fetch the islanders from Sultan Kudarat and bring them home to their respective areas, but Lt. General Cirilito Sobejana, WestMinCom chief, asked that the islanders be administered RT-PCR tests first so as not to jeopardize the health of the crew.

Delayed return

Minister Raissa Jajurie, of the Social Services and Development, met with the stranded islanders on Monday, explained to them the consequences of the laboratory result and ensured them they will be cared for by the region and brought home safe and healthy even if delayed.

Asked if the region will stop receiving LSIs given the spike in the number of positives, Sinarimbo said they will inform first the national IATF about the Hatid-Tulong Program and its impact on the ground.

“We will report to the national government that this is now what you have brought us and the challenges we encountered, including the high infection rate,” he said.

In the case of Basilan and Sulu, Sinarimbo said, the two provinces could not yet accept more LSIs due to full capacity of isolation areas and lack of medical workers to attend to them.

Sinarimbo said the region is tapping other assets for transient and isolation facilities like unused housing projects and facilities and recommended the construction of 100-bed capacity isolation areas in every province, and immediately hire medical volunteers and health workers to augment the human resource pool in the region during this pandemic. (Ferdinandh B. Cabrera with a report by Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)