GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 03 January) — The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Western Mindanao has deployed more naval assets in the Sulu Sea to block vessels traveling from Sabah, Malaysia, where a new variant of the highly contagious COVID-19 was recently detected, as Sulu begins its 14-day lockdown starting Monday, January 4.
Lieutenant General Corleto Vinluan, Jr., commander of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom), said the augmentation is in response to the decision of the Sulu provincial government to close its borders for 14 days from January 4 to 17, to prevent the entry of possible carriers of the COVID-19 variant from Sabah. Frontliners, however, such as health personnel, military and police will be allowed entry.
“We are maximizing our capabilities to keep the contagion offshore,” he said in a statement.
Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan earlier sought the help of President Rodrigo Duterte to help the provincial government prevent the entry of the COVID-19 strain detected in Sabah.
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.”
President Rodrigo Duterte said Tan requested for a naval blockade in the Sulu Sea with the discovery of the COVID-19 variant in Sabah, which is about 30 hours by boat from the Sulu archipelago.
The nearest Mindanao province to Lahad Datu, Sabah, where the samples of the new variant were found, is Tawi-tawi.
For centuries, Mindanao, particularly Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Basilan, have been known to have close trading and inter-people relations due to their proximity and cultural similarities and a shared history.
Tan noted that Sulu province has porous coastlines with the vast Sulu Sea separating it from Sabah.
He stressed that only the national government is fully equipped with the capacity and logistics to prevent the COVID-19 variant in Sabah from spreading in the Sulu archipelago.
Tan said the lockdown maybe be lengthened, depending on the situation.
As of January 2, Sulu, a predominantly Muslim province with a population of 825,000 as of 2015, recorded 248 COVID-19 cases, 10 of them active, 226 recoveries and 12 deaths.
Vinluan commended the decision of Sulu to implement a lockdown starting Monday, January 4, as a measure to prevent the entry of the COVID-19 variant from Sabah.
Additional troops have also been deployed to secure the borders with Sabah to stop the entry of passenger vessels coming from the eastern Malaysian state, he said.
According to him, personnel of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao will conduct patrols in the borders of Sulu and Tawi-tawi provinces and the Zamboanga peninsula, also as part of security measures.
Sulu is a known lair of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group, which has been engaged in kidnapping activities in the Sulu Sea and the waters off Sabah. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)