Complacent Sarawakians Warned Of Potential Covid-19 Surge Post-Gawai

Poor SOP compliance and uncontrolled inter-district movement may cause an increase of Covid-19 cases in Sarawak amid the festive season.

KUCHING, June 1 — The lack of new Covid-19 cases in Sarawak has lulled many into doffing face masks, prompting expert cautions about a potential surge after Gawai celebrations.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) Sarawak branch chairman Dr Morni Abu Samat told CodeBlue in an interview that he noticed a drop in Sarawakians’ compliance with the use of face masks in public, agreeing with the statement that “quite a number of ‘uncles’ are seen to not be wearing masks when out and about”, referring to middle-aged men.

“Yes, I noticed it too. We have to do more awareness campaign on ‘face mask’. Very poor compliance on using masks among the rural folks and also the urban area. Some of them (are) not using it properly,” said Dr Morni, pointing out that proper masking etiquette education is important, in addition to advising the public to wear a face covering in public.

He further added that a surge in Covid-19 cases in Sarawak after the Gawai celebration can be expected “if the inter-district movement is not controlled”, emphasising that “the risk is there”. Today is Gawai Dayak, a harvest festival celebrated in Sarawak.

“There is always the risk of a new wave, which may overwhelm our resources and health care system,” he said.

Sarawak hasn’t yet managed more than 14 days free of zero new Covid-19 cases since May 17. The state yesterday recorded zero new Covid-19 cases for the fourth consecutive day, after reporting three new cases on May 27. Four new coronavirus cases were reported on May 25, and one on May 22.

Dr Morni also pointed out that 11 per cent of the Sarawak population consisted of elderly citizens in 2018, or 306,800 people. Diabetes prevalence is about 15 per cent in the state. The elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are more vulnerable to developing severe disease from Covid-19.

“There are a lot of Sarawakians planning to ‘balik kampung’, ‘pulai ke rumah pajai’. This includes students, workers and others coming back for holidays. It is understandable that many will be planning to come back for festive seasons coming soon,” said Dr Morni.

He further explained that the rush of returnees to the state in large groups from different locations pose a risk of increasing the number of Covid-19 cases in the state, which could overwhelm the health care system in largely rural Sarawak.

“The risk of inadvertent transmission to their family members and others in society from those returning is always there.”

Dr Morni Abu Samat, Malaysian Medical Association Sarawak branch chairman

“As it is difficult to regulate and control the numbers returning and the situation in Sarawak is just settling down, MMA Sarawak urges Sarawakians, if possible, to hold on returning to Sarawak for the festive season. This will help protect our families and prevent those with risk from getting the Covid-19 infection,” Dr Morni advised.

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii. Picture from Facebook @DrKelvinyii.

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, who similarly expects a rise in Covid-19 infection rates after Gawai celebrations, also observed that the usage of face masks has generally decreased during the festive season.

“From general observation, the usage of face masks is seen much less during the festive season and it should not be a reason to lax on its usage especially during visits. This should be taken seriously as we approach Gawai as well,” said Dr Yii.

He further added that the control of the potential increase in coronavirus cases is crucial in ensuring that it stays within the health care system’s capabilities.

“In general, I do expect a rise in infection rates after the festive season. What is important is that such rise is controlled and does not overwhelm our health care system and also trigger another need for restrictive measures.

“That is why we all play a role in making sure that happen(s) and this festive season is an important juncture to determine if there will be another wave of infection or not,” said Dr Yii.

He further added that since more than 70 per cent of Sarawak is now classified as “Green Zone” on paper, or areas that do not report new coronavirus cases, the major concern during the Gawai celebration is on the carriers of Covid-19 who might travel from the city to rural areas, where health care facilities have limited capability to deal with an infectious outbreak like Covid-19.

“While on paper it may seem reasonable for such Gawai celebrations to go on — especially since more than 70 per cent of Sarawak is classified as ‘Green Zone’, which covers mainly the semi-urban and rural areas — but the major concern will be if a carrier travels back from the city to the rural areas and causes a new cluster, especially in the rural areas.

Dr Kelvin Yii, Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching

“This is a concern as the health care facilities in rural areas especially may not have the capacity to deal with an outbreak,” Dr Yii told CodeBlue.

“Although the Dayak community in general has agreed to forgo Gawai celebration this year, but there (will) always be some ‘bad apples’ in every community that we need to be prepared for.

“Asymptomatic carriers are always a concern and they may pose a risk of spreading the infection even with a single-day celebration with close family and friends,” he explained.

Sarawak Utilities Minister Dr Stephen Rundi Utom. Picture from Facebook @ukascomms.

Sarawak Utilities Minister Dr Stephen Rundi told CodeBlue that “any breach of the CMCO (Conditional Movement Control Order) could pose a threat to the efforts by the authorities to contain the Covid-19”.

“If the people maintain their social distancing during this Gawai celebration, I believe we can continue to keep this pandemic at bay,” said Dr Rundi, adding that the state government is prepared to face a second wave of Covid-19 in the event that it hits Sarawak.

“The authorities concerned are in full anticipation of the second wave of Covid-19 and are prepared for any eventualities as what is happening in other countries around the globe,” he assured.

The CMCO was implemented nationwide on May 4, which allowed most economic sectors to resume business, but the Sarawak Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) delayed its implementation within the state until May 12. The current phase of CMCO is set to end on June 9 nationwide.

Dr Tan Poh Tin (far right), a consultant paediatrician and public health specialist based in Kuching. Picture from Dr Tan Poh Tin.

Dr Tan Poh Tin, a consultant paediatrician and public health specialist based in Kuching, believes that a 100 per cent compliance with the use of face masks may be out of reach, and that settling for an 80 per cent compliance is good enough in open areas.

“I don’t think we can hope for 100 per cent (compliance). A four out of five ratio compliance is good in open areas. (However), in classrooms or childcare (centres) or closed areas when in bus — maybe enforce 100 per cent face covering is good, however and whatever the mask,” she said.

Adding to the possible outcome of non-compliance with standard operating procedures (SOP) set by government authorities, Dr Tan projected another Covid-19 peak about one week after the Gawai celebrations this week.

“The incubation period between contact with an infectious person and showing signs of Covid-19 is about five to eight days. So, we may expect to see a surge one week after the Gawai holidays.

Dr Tan Poh Tin, consultant paediatrician and public health specialist

“If people come into contact with infectious cases — either on public travel or shopping or in longhouse — it takes about five to eight days for symptoms to appear, which hopefully they will see a doctor and get tested. So, (the) peak will follow (the) incubation period,” she explained.

Inter-District Travels Still Prohibited During Gawai

Iban longboats are used to shuttle visitors around the Batang Ai National Park in Sarawak to the many Iban longhouses around here. Picture from Facebook @madeinsarawak.

The SDMC decided last week that ‘ngabang Gawai’ or house-to-house visits would be prohibited during the Hari Gawai celebration, and that it will be celebrated for only one day, which is a decision in line with the SOP for CMCO set by the National Security Council (MKN).

Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas also reiterated last Friday that longhouse visits during the Gawai Dayak celebration is absolutely prohibited, especially since the federal regulation of a 20-visitor limit is impractical for the building infrastructure.

Dr Rundi told CodeBlue that those who hold a permit from the police to travel across districts would be allowed to do so in accordance with the strict SOP set by the authorities.

“Gawai visitations on the day itself within any district will still be regulated by the SOP, which has been prescribed by MKN and the SDMC. For river transports, social distancing of at least 1 metre between passengers must be maintained. This means that they can only operate at half of their full capacity,” said Dr Rundi.

The state government has banned inter-district travel within Sarawak throughout the Movement Control Order (MCO) and also the CMCO; that includes inter-district travel by river, which is the most common mode of transport to longhouses in the state. Inter-district travel in Sarawak is only allowed with written police permission until the end of the CMCO on June 9.

Dr Rundi also told CodeBlue that authorities from every division are on board to ensure that the SOP is followed by the people during the festive season.

“I have been informed that the authorities in each division led by the Resident, who chairs the Divisional Disaster Management Committee which deals with Covid-19 situation, will ensure that the SOP are complied with strictly.

“The committee also includes the participation of PDRM (Royal Malaysia Police) and the Sarawak Rivers Board (SRB) and will collaborate with all the Tuai Rumah (Longhouse Headmen) for good measure,” he explained, adding that several residents of longhouses have taken initiatives to better enforce the steps needed to curb the spread of Covid-19.

“Some longhouses have even gone to the extent of imposing their own punitive measures, like monetary fines, to deter those would-be offenders,” said Dr Rundi.

Dr Yii also shared that all express boat and speedboat operations are currently heavily regulated across the state and are mainly used to transport students back to their villages, of which students would have to have undergone a mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated hotels with a negative Covid-19 test result.

He also added that transportation across different coloured zones are still not allowed. As of yesterday, five districts have been classified as yellow zones, or those reporting below 40 new Covid-19 cases: Kuching, Samarahan, Serian, Mukah, and Bintulu.

Interestingly, Dr Yii pointed out a loophole in the system — the travel history of each passenger and whether they travelled into a green zone with a different mode of transportation before that — and stressed that enforcers have to closely monitor and conduct thorough checks on the travel history of each passenger.

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