Stricter border controls expected in Mindanao with discovery of new COVID-19 strain in Sabah

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 December) – Stricter border controls are to be expected in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi following the discovery of a new strain of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sabah, East Malaysia.

Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, Director-General of Malaysia’s Ministry of Health, announced on December 23 that a new strain of COVID-19, dubbed A701B mutation was found from samples taken in Sabah.

The Straits Times of Malaysia quoted him as saying A701B is “similar to a strain found in South Africa, Australian and the Netherlands”  but they have yet to ascertain “whether this strain has a high infectivity level and whether it is more aggressive than usual.”

The Health Ministry, he said,  detected the mutation in 60 samples taken from COVID-19 patients under the Benteng Lahad Datu cluster in Sabah.

Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia in relation to Mindanao. The nearest Mindanao province to Lahad Datu is Tawi-tawi. Courtesy of Google Maps

Noor Saada, a former Education Assistant Secretary in the defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said there is a need to be “proactive in the Sulu Archipelago and Zamboanga Peninsula” given the new strain found in Sabah.

Naguib Sinarimbo, Local Governments Minister and spokesperson of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM0 told MindaNews on Saturday that they have directed their provincial Inter-Agency Task Forces (IATF) on COVID-19 “to enforce stringent measures against entry of people coming from Sabah.”

Nearest to Sabah’s Lahad Datu

Tawi-tawi is the nearest province to Sabah’s Lahad Datu.

Mobin Gampal, Provincial Administrator and IATF Focal Person in Tawi-tawi, said they will meet on Monday to discuss the matter and “enhance measures to ensure more safety. “

Gampal explained that sea borders have been closed since Day 1 of the lockdowns in March but “meron pa rin di maiwasan na lumulusot sa area” (there are still people who manage to enter the area). He assured the situation is “manageable.”

On December 19, the official advisory from the IATF reiterated requirements for entry into Tawi-tawi by sea and air by returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) and Locally Stranded Individuals (LSIs).

Anyone entering Tawi-tawi will have to present a medical certificate from the local health unit, travel authority issued by Task Force COVID Shield, recent RT-PCR (reverse  transcription polymerase chain reaction) “yielding a negative result with one week validity” and certificate of prior coordination issued by the Provincial IATF.

Safeguards and preemptive measures

In a statement on Friday, Sulu Governor Saur Tan said his province, which “traditionally and historically (has) close trade and inter-people’s relations with Sabah,” views the report of a new strain of COVID-19 “seriously and will continue to liaise and make representations with the National Inter-Agency Task Force MEID (on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) on how best to handle the emerging situation”

“We have porous coastlines and a vast Sulu Sea between us and Sabah, and only the National Government is equipped with the capacity and logistics to put in place and in operation, safeguards and preemptive measures called for,”  Tan said.

Sulu voted against inclusion in the BARMM in the January 2019 plebiscite but is part of the BARMM as the law provides that the core area of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao votes as a geographic unit. Sulu has a pending petition before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the Bangsamoro law.

Tan said the Sulu Task Force Covid-19 is calling on the public “not to panic and to heed advisories only from official sources. With our frontline partners, we will intensify our monitoring and utilize all material and human resources at our disposal to assure our constituents, as we reiterate our call to them to avoid speculations and the spread of fake and harmful mongering.”

REFS: Returning Filipinos from Sabah

Travel by commercial ferry between Sabah and the western part of Mindanao has been suspended since the COVID-19 lockdowns started in mid-March. Travel was allowed only for undocumented Filipinos in Sabah deported by the government there, now referred to as “REFS” or Returning Filipinos from Sabah.

Some 5,300 REFS were supposed to have been repatriated in  batches of 400 every 15 days, to be sent home with negative RT-PCR test results. But only six batches, or a total of 2,119 persons, have returned home, leaving some 3,000 more in Sabah.

The first batch of 395 REFS from Sabah arrived in Tawi-tawi on July 4 and the sixth batch of 151 REFS  arrived on November 10.  MindaNews learned that a seventh batch was supposed to leave Sabah on December 14 but the repatriates were not allowed because a substantial number of REFS tested positive in the RT-PCR test. The vessel sailed back to the Philippines without passengers.

Earlier, on September 14, President Rodrigo Duterte appealed “to the humanitarian sense of the Malaysian government to please help our citizens in your country, as we would do for your citizens if they are in our country.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)

READ: Lorenzana: “ban the movement of people from Sabah to Sulu”