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Sulu braces for lockdown

Interisland borders to be shut for two weeks as new coronavirus variant detected in neighboring Malaysia
/ 05:06 AM December 31, 2020

ZAMBOANGA CITY—Sulu residents who are based abroad or elsewhere in the country and want to go home or those who plan to leave the province have less than a week to finalize their decisions before local officials start a lockdown to keep out the new coronavirus strain, military officials said.

Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr., chief of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), said Sulu would be on lockdown from Jan. 4 to Jan. 17, 2021 to protect the province against the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus reported in Sabah, Malaysia.“We had a meeting with Sulu Gov. Abdusakur Tan [and] it was agreed that a lockdown would be imposed. [This would be] an interisland lockdown to prevent the possible spread of the new COVID-19 variant from Sabah,” he added.

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Vinluan, however, assured that transport of goods and other essential supplies from Zamboanga City would still be allowed in Sulu.

“All other existing health protocols stipulated in the latest memo of the Sulu IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases) will remain in effect,” he said.

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Maritime patrol

He said patrol boats would be stationed in nearby Tawi-Tawi province as part of heightened border monitoring measures. “We have four naval patrol boats to prevent the entry of passenger vessels,” he said.

Vinluan earlier directed all the naval assets of Naval Forces Western Mindanao to intensify their maritime patrols along the borders with Malaysia and stop the entry of all passenger ships from Sabah to Zamboanga City, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

Tan had sought a naval blockade in the capital Jolo following the Dec. 24 reports of the new COVID-19 variant in Malaysia. Sabah is barely a day’s travel by boat to Sulu, passing through a backdoor in Tawi-Tawi.

Although no one among the Filipino workers in Sabah is expected to return soon, social welfare officials estimate that 3,000 of them would return to the country next year, according to Ivan Eric Salvador, information officer of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Zamboanga Peninsula region.

“We don’t expect any arrival this year because of the lockdown imposed in Malaysia, as well as the weather conditions there,” Salvador said.

Basilan monitoring

Basilan Gov. Jim Salliman ordered all mayors and barangay officials to quarantine all returning Filipinos from Malaysia, although no Filipino migrant worker was expected to come home this month.

Salliman said barangay officials would play a greater role in keeping watch over the new arrivals. “Sometimes we cannot monitor the arrival [because] these people go straight to the barangays without coordination, so village leaders have to be vigilant here,” he said.

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Vinluan said all sea vessels of the naval forces in the area would be committed for the intensified monitoring effort, with the support from the Philippine Coast Guard’s patrol boats and the Bantay Dagat (sea patrols) of local governments.

Coordinated effort

“The key here is our coordinated effort with all the concerned agencies and [local governments]. The directive has been relayed down to the lower units,” Vinluan said.

He said the different commanders of the Joint Task Forces in Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi were already informed about the alert status.

“They were also instructed to coordinate their efforts with the local governments to support the local chief executives’ respective COVID-19 protocols,” Vinluan said.

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