COVID-19 positives among stranded BaSulTa residents surge to 120; NTF apologizes to BARMM for the ‘mess’

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 15 July) – Stranded in Manila for months, in Cagayan de Oro for two nights and now in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao since 12:15 a.m. on July 10, the long and winding journey of 405 residents of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi (BaSulTa) to return home to their islands is far from over: the number of COVID-19 positives among them has reached 120 or 30% of the total and as the 120 are being treated, the rest of the 405 will have to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine in Sultan Kudarat town.

The stranded BaSulTa residents get swabbed for the RT-PCR test at the Cotabato Sanitarium in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on 10 July 2020. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

The additional cases bring to 368 the total number of COVID-19 cases in the Bangsamoro region as of Wednesday noon, Bangsamoro Local Governments Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, concurrent BARMM spokesperson, told MindaNews

The BaSulTa islanders were assisted in returning home by the Hatid Tulong Program, a joint initiative of the Office of the President, National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF), Department of Transportation and Communication and other agencies. But their journey was not coordinated with either the provincial local government units (LGUs) that were supposed to receive them or the regional government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), resulting to the “mess” that an official of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 had to apologize for on Tuesday.

Sinarimbo said that out of 405 islanders swabbed upon arrival in Sultan Kudarat town, the results of the Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test showed 120 tested positive of COVID-19: 69 of 310 from Basilan; 48 of 75 from Sulu and three of 20 from Tawi-tawi.

Sinarimbo said Undersecretary Isidro Purisima of the NTF who presided over the nationwide inter-task force meeting in a video teleconference on Tuesday afternoon apologized for the “mess” it caused the BARMM.

Sinarimbo had complained that the BARMM was informed of the arrival of the BaSulTa islanders in Cagayan de Oro only in the afternoon of July 7 when he received a text message from the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in Manila.

The M/V St. Pope John Paul of 2Go Shipping left Manila on July 4.

The stranded BaSulTa residents arrive in 17 buses at a government COVID-19 isolation facility in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao in the wee hours of 10 July 2020. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH CABRERA

Sinarimbo said he immediately contacted the Governors of the three island provinces who, as it turned out, did not also know they had Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs) who arrived on a boat in faraway Cagayan de Oro.

Cagayan de Oro is at least half a day’s travel by land transportation to Zamboanga City, supposedly the nearest port of disembarkation for the islanders.

Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo of the Presidential Management Staff, the Hatid Tulong officer-in-charge, told MindaNews evening of July 7 that the ship’s passengers were informed they would dock in Cagayan de Oro.

He said it was explained to the passengers that the boat could not proceed to Zamboanga because it is “compelled to dock (in Cagayan de Oro) due to cargoes to be unloaded” and is “required to be back in Manila kasi need to ferry passengers as schedule(d).”

“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 state-run Philippine News Agency on July 4 reported that according to Encabo, around 3,570 LSIs bound for Mindanao “benefited from the program on July 4 with another batch of nearly 2,000 bound for Luzon and Visayas scheduled to be transported on July 5.”

The report did not say how many ships were used to accommodate the 3,570 passengers bound for Mindanao, given the minimum health protocols required such as physical distancing.

MindaNews asked Encabo about this, along with other questions but he replied then that he was already in a meeting and would respond the next day. He did not.

MindaNews sent him another set of questions on July 14 – about the passenger manifest for the BaSulTa islanders, if the 3,570 passengers bound for Mindanao were in one ship, and if they had informed the shipping company and the other passengers in the boat that docked in Cagayan de Oro, about the COVID-19 cases of their BaSulTa passengers.

MindaNews sent the same questions to Encabo morning of July 15 and mid-afternoon but as of 4:30 p.m. he has not responded.

An ABS-CBN News report on June 26 quoted Encabo as saying that as of June 25, “we were able to send home almost 54,000 LSIs” back to their home provinces, with about 13,000 more waiting to be assisted.

Contact Tracing: From Manila to CDO to Sultan Kudarat

Sinarimbo told MindaNews he had asked his staff to immediately contact the management of the 17 buses that ferried the stranded islanders from Cagayan de Oro to Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, the City Government of Cagayan de Oro, the DILG in Region 10 and the Provincial Government of Lanao del Sur which helped in the transport of the islanders from the boat to a state university gym in Cagayan de Oro City and provided them food and beddings – to inform them of the COVID-19 positives among the BaSulTa islanders.

Sinarimbo said the number of BaSulTa passengers that was relayed to them by the national DILG on July 7 was 414. The DILG Region 10 in Cagayan de Oro City counted 499. Upon arrival in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, the islanders were immediately swabbed and the total number was 405.

He said he asked for a passenger manifest from the DILG national office but received none. Sinarimbo explained that the DILG Region 10 listing of 499, as it turned out, included other persons in the university gym that were bound for Davao and other areas in Mindanao. The attendance sheet as they boarded the 17 buses for Sultan Kudarat was 424 but there were 18 that turned out to be double entries and there was one on the list that said “10 Badjaos.”

What is clear, Sinarimbo said, is that the number of persons who were swabbed for RT-PCR testing in Sultan Kudarat in the early hours of July 10 was 405.

They were brought to Sultan Kudarat town instead of Zamboanga City on July 9 because Zamboanga City, also overwhelmed by the arrival of a thousand LSIs, could only allow them transit at the port, where the LGUs from the islands are supposed to fetch them. The provincial governments, on the other hand, were also overwhelmed by the arrival of LSIs. Basilan then had just been granted its request to declare a moratorium on accepting LSIs until July 21 as they could no longer accommodate more arrivals in their quarantine facilities.

The 405 BaSulTa residents would have been sent home to their respective islands on three naval boats from Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao which the BARMM had arranged with the Western Mindanao Command, but Sinarimbo said the boats had to be sent back to Zamboanga as all 405 will have to extend their stay in Sultan Kudarat town.

Sinarimbo said those who tested positive are brought to the 100-bed Cotabato Sanitarium in Sultan Kudarat town, while the rest will remain in makeshift quarantine facilities at the Ministry of Public Works compound, the Bangsamoro Management and Leadership Institute training center, the Ministry of Food and Agrarian Reform training center and the military academy gym of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s Camp Darapanan.

He said they are looking for other areas because the sanitarium cannot accommodate all 120 positives as it has other patients confined there before the islanders arrived.

BARMM stats: 248 as of July 14 plus 120

The additional COVID-19 cases from among the BaSulTa residents have not been added formally to the BARMM daily statistics as the regional IATF has yet to decide on what category they will fall under, Sinarimbo said.

He said they opted to wait for the results of all those swabbed and will have to decide on how to classify the 120: as a special category or add to the statistics of their respective member-provinces now. He said it would not also be fair to add 120 to the Maguindanao statistics as the tests were only made in the province.

As of July 14, the BARMM’s Ministry of Health recorded 248 COVID-19 cases: 134 in Lanao del Sur, 74 in Basilan except Isabela City which is not part of the BARMM; 32 in Maguindanao, seven in Sulu and one in Tawi-tawi.

Adding 120 to 248, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the Bangsamoro region is 368 as of Wednesday noon, Sinarimbo said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)