Sarawak hit hard as Malaysia's Covid-19 cases spike

A man gets vaccinated at Sibu Indoor Stadium in Sarawak as part of Malaysia's Covid-19 vaccination drive.
A man gets vaccinated at Sibu Indoor Stadium in Sarawak as part of Malaysia's Covid-19 vaccination drive.PHOTO: SPECIAL COMMITTEE ON COVID-19 VACCINE SUPPLY ACCESS GUARANTEE

KUALA LUMPUR - Sarawak, once considered one of the states that had managed the Covid-19 outbreak well, has been shattering records in infections amid Malaysia's recent spike.

The East Malaysian state was long regarded as a model in managing the pandemic. It has had a rigorous testing regimen and mandatory quarantine imposed on people who arrived in the state from all other parts of Malaysia since last year.

At the end of 2020, Sarawak had recorded only 1,117 Covid-19 infections and 19 deaths, around 1 per cent of Malaysia's total infections, which stood at 113,010 on Dec 31.

Even when most of Malaysia entered a movement control order (MCO) in January - a strict partial lockdown - Sarawak, whose response to the pandemic has been largely driven by the Sarawak Disaster Management Committee (SDMC), was one of the few states that was not placed under it.

However, things started to take a turn for the worse in February as Sarawak began to record hundreds of infections a day.

This was initially sparked by the emergence of a cluster in early January after an individual from Johor underwent home quarantine at a longhouse while returning for a funeral and subsequently infected longhouse residents. The cluster started before Malaysia banned interstate travel from Jan 13 this year.

The Pasai cluster, which remains Sarawak's worst outbreak, was finally declared over on April 13. By that time, the transmission had spread to 10 districts in Sarawak, spanning 2,693 positive infections and 29 deaths.

In April alone, there were 10 days when Sarawak recorded the highest number of daily infections among the states, hitting a record high of 960 cases on April 16.

Sarawak has now recorded 25,603 total cases - or 7 per cent of the national total - while deaths have climbed to 141.

The state regularly records infections comparable with that of Malaysia's most populous state, Selangor, which has long been an epicentre of the country's Covid-19 cases. With 2.6 million people, Sarawak is the fourth-most populous state in Malaysia, but also the state with the lowest population density.

The outbreak is not helped by the dissonance between the SDMC and the decision makers in the federal government.

Earlier this week, Sarawak Chief Minister Abang Johari Abang Openg announced that all schools in Sarawak red zones would be closed for two weeks even though the education ministry did not issue any directive on the matter. More than half of Sarawak's 40 districts are currently categorised as red zones.

Last week, the SDMC, which is led by Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Douglas Uggah Embas, decided not to impose an MCO on five major districts in Sarawak as initially announced by the National Security Council, a federal body.

Datuk Douglas said the state had opted to maintain a conditional MCO, a milder version of the MCO, citing the economic impact of an MCO in areas such as Kuching, Miri, Bintulu and Sibu.

Sarawak last week also received faulty ventilators from the Health Ministry, leading the state's politicians to criticise the ministry and the federal government. Eight out of 10 new ventilators sent to the state on April 12 were found to be faulty.

Mr Robert Lau, a senator from Sarawak, said on Wednesday (April 21) that the pandemic had exposed the lack of attention and resources given to Sarawak's healthcare system.

The whole of Sarawak remains under the conditional MCO, with a ban on inter-district and inter-zone travel.

The state is also due to face an election in August, one year after an election in neighbouring Sabah sparked the initial third wave of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia which is showing no signs of abating.