Manila, Philippines – Authorities are scrambling to trace the Filipinos who attended a religious event in Malaysia which has been linked to a spike in COVID-19 cases in several countries across Southeast Asia.
The Tablighi Jamaat congregation held from February 27 to March 1 at the Sri Petaling Mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur drew an estimated 16,000 devotees from about 30 countries.
On its Facebook page, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) announced that 215 Filipinos attended the four-day religious gathering.
During the event, the attendees prayed together and slept alongside one another inside a mosque, with many others camping in tents pitched outside.
Malaysia recorded its single biggest number of 190 COVID-19 cases on March 15, with a majority of those cases being people who attended the Kuala Lumpur event. Brunei, Singapore and Cambodia have also recorded cases connected with the assembly.
The NCMF said most of the Filipinos who went were from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a group of provinces in the southern Philippines.
Due to the limited personal information available, local authorities are depending on those who went to put themselves forward or communities to identify them.
“Some fear they will be rejected by their communities or are afraid of being isolated from their families if they are suspected of having the virus. The current messaging of ‘identify and isolate’ is scary for many,” said BARRM’s Interior Minister Naguib Sinarimbo.
Moreover, some attendees may have left undetected through the country’s “southern backdoor”, the islands closest to Malaysia’s maritime border in th Borneo state of Sabah.
On March 13, a Filipino man died after he tested positive for COVID-19. He had travelled to Malaysia, but local authorities were unable to confirm if he attended the Tablighi Jamaat event.
On Thursday, another death was recorded in the BARMM province of Lanao del Sur. His test result released on Friday showed he was positive for COVID-19. He had been to the gathering.
“What we really need now is more test kits to identify the cases,” said Sinarimbo.
On Saturday, the health department said it received 100,000 test kits from China, South Korea and Brunei.
“In the coming days, we will see the true increase in cases,” Health Under-Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during a news briefing.
A spike in COVID-19 cases would be devastating for the BARMM region, with more than 60 percent of its people facing poverty.
“We suspect the number of cases will increase. Our strategy is to slow down transmission, improve our response and try not to overload our health facilities,” said Sinarimbo.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte announced an enhanced community quarantine on the island of Luzon, north of Mindanao, to limit the spread of the virus.
Checkpoints manned by the police and the military were set up to seal off the island of about 56 million people. Other provinces, including those in BARMM, declared similar lockdowns.
The Philippines has so far confirmed 307 COVID-19 cases and 19 deaths.
The country’s former health minister, Manuel Dayrit, who oversaw the 2003 SARS outbreak, said the number does not present a full picture on the spread of the virus in the Philippines.
The government’s latest data showed only 1,399 people had been tested for COVID-19 across the archipelago.
“We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Many cases are undetected due to the low level of testing,” said Dayrit.
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization called on the countries to “test, test, test” to check for the disease.
But even with additional kits from China, the Philippines’ health department said testing would be limited to people under investigation (PUI), a classification for those showing COVID-19 symptoms and a recent history of travel to a country with a high number of infections.
#MassTestingNow trended online on Friday as angry Filipinos took to social media, demanding more tests.
Experts said the WHO recommendation is not a sustainable solution for countries such as the Philippines which have limited resources.
“Testing is good if we can do it without much money. Between protecting a health worker, treating a patient and testing for a disease that does not yet have a treatment, what will save most lives immediately?” asked Edsel Salvana, an infectious diseases specialist.
Salvana said protective gear for front line medical workers and better patient care should be the priority.
This week, the Philippines government announced a 27.1-billion-peso ($529m) budget to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, with half the money allocated to the lucrative tourism sector.
The Alliance of Health Workers, a union of health workers across the country, slammed the move.
“Government authorities do not provide health workers with proper protective gear, making them vulnerable to the virus. Where is the heart of this government?” AHW president Robert Mendoza asked in a statement.
Private citizens and various corporations are making up for the shortfall with an outpouring of donations of protective gear and food.
The show of support is keeping health workers such as Eleazar Sobinsky in positive spirits. “We really feel everyone’s concern for us.”
But Sobinsky said they are bracing themselves for a long haul where they will see more cases, overloaded hospitals and fatigued health workers.
“We will worry about our personal safety and may have to be away from our families for long periods of time. That will be a double burden for us.”