Emerging humanitarian Covid-19 crisis in Sabah

We desperately need a coordinated intervention from different parties for the betterment of Sabahans


SINCE the beginning of October 2020, we have witnessed the rise of Covid-19 cases at an alarming rate in Sabah, with a total of 10,868 new cases as of Oct 26, in a span of less than one month. The condition is getting worse, yet, they are just receiving national attention only after the third wave.

The rapid increase in new cases in Sabah compared to other Malaysian states should highlight a key issue about the situation in the Borneo state. In addition to the existing health constraints to contain the virus, there is the risk of a humanitarian crisis emerging in Sabah.

A humanitarian crisis is an event or situation that threatens the health, safety and welfare of a community or a region due to natural or human factors.

This deadly pandemic has exposed the socio-economic vulnerabilities that the state has been facing even before the Covid-19 outbreak hit Malaysia earlier this year.

Sabah has always faced issues of lagging economic development and long-term neglect by authorities, as established through evidence-based research by Bridget Welsh and Calvin Cheng.

The challenging socio-economic conditions will add to the sufferings of Sabahans during the pandemic and the series of lockdowns. Hence, this Covid-19 issue is not only a health problem, but it will be a cause of an emerging humanitarian crisis in Sabah.

Fortunately, the risk of becoming a humanitarian crisis is not yet full-blown, meaning that we can still take some actions to prevent the situation from getting into that desperate stage.

We do not deny the dire need for health assistance during these perilous times, especially with Sabah having the highest trajectory of Covid-19 infections and deaths.

In fact, aids such as more resources for medical frontliners, hospitals and testing materials are highly necessary. However, we also believe that the help that Sabah needs goes beyond healthcare, since the issue is not just about health.

First of all, we need to recognise the immediate domestic needs and livelihoods of Sabahans during this crisis. For instance, the recent heartbreaking video of a Bajau Laut man chasing after the marine patrol to ask for food was just the tip of the iceberg. The underlying problem that should be emphasised is the lack of food security, especially during troubling times like now.

Besides, malnourishment is a source of other health complications. The main point is that the governments, both federal and state, should provide all measures necessary to respond to the basic domestic needs and livelihoods of Sabahans, such as the supply of food, the access to information (particularly on combatting Covid-19), and the clean items for Covid-19 prevention.

After almost a year of lockdown and fighting Covid-19, we understand that the federal government, and especially Sabah state government, may have limited funding to provide all the solutions and assistance required during this humanitarian crisis.

There are so many affected groups, and the government can only do so much. Besides, short-term financial stimulus packages are not able to fully alleviate the majority of difficulties faced by Sabahans.

Therefore, we also propose a coordinated intervention platform by the government to facilitate everyone to come forward and provide help in all possible ways in order to address the needs of Sabahans. This effort should include various government agencies,

NGOs, civil societies and private players through corporate social responsibility events.

In the time where there are larger civil society engagements and better awareness of social responsibility, the government should effectively leverage them to help Sabahans. As in any huge crisis, the serious issue in Sabah requires the full support and assistance from various communities. Hence, it is important to build trust on the ground to ensure that this coordinated effort can function.

One way of creating this trust among different parties for a coordinated effort is to establish an independent logistical arrangement or channel, which will be used to transport food, medicines, sanitary items and any necessary goods to the critical areas in Sabah. This channel collection point can be based in Kuala Lumpur or any city in Sarawak that is convenient for transport to Sabah.

The sudden call for the emergency state ruling should not be welcomed at all because it would undermine the generous actions and the efforts taken by the civil society. We cannot afford to delay any more actions when the situation in Sabah requires the utmost urgency, especially when it involves human lives.

Certainly, there should also be efforts to address the long-term economic challenges, because one of the factors for the devastating health conditions is the socio-economic vulnerabilities of Sabahans. This requires policy and structural reforms, some of which may take years to implement and leave an impact. However, this is an important topic for a different discussion altogether.

As for now, the need for integrated assistance from the government and civil societies is more urgent and paramount to save Sabahans from their sufferings.

While the risk of Sabah being in a humanitarian crisis is still manageable, things are moving very fast and unexpectedly at the magnitude that we cannot imagine. Thus, we desperately need a coordinated intervention from different parties.

We must come together for the betterment of Sabahans and put an end to any political clash that may push Sabah into the humanitarian crisis.

Fariq Sazuki is economist at Bait Al Amanah (House of Trust), while Dr Abdul Razak Ahmad is the founding director. The views expressed are of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.