In the first installment of IAG Webinar Series (April 03, 2020), BARMM local government minister and concurrent regional spokesman Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo walked us through how the BARMM regional government is managing and mitigating the evolving threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our friends from the civil society, academe, NGO sector, international and diplomatic community were the attendees in this webinar.

We're posting below an edited transcript of Atty. Sinarimbo's presentation. Stream this webinar on SoundCloud. Jump to the Q&A page.


Updates on BARMM Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo, BARMM Local Government Minister & Spokesperson

April 03, 2020


Good morning to our colleagues. I hope everyone is safe. What I'll do is try to quickly walk you through the response at the level of the regional government of the BARMM and hopefully try to answer if there are some issues that you want to clarify. 


I think this is an important conversation for most of us because a lot of what used to be the mechanism for updating everyone and in trying to understand what actually is happening in the region has been put to hold – so no meetings, no conferences. What we now have really are just press releases and mostly updates coming from the regional government. 


What we have in the region now is a response that's principally driven by the pandemic. What we've done is, first, organized the Interagency Task Force (IATF) that is tasked to lead the response in the region. The task force is headed by Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim. We have an emergency operations center located at the Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence (BARMM-READI), also in the compound of the regional government. That emergency operations center is manned 24/7 by our personnel. All of the response and data generated from the different ministries as well as the provincial offices are consolidated at the operations center. 


The response in the regional government has been principally driven by IATF. For now, we've developed also a contingency plan for responding to the pandemic. The contingency plan was drafted by a joint team from the different ministries of the regional government as well as the Mindanao Humanitarian Team – that's the team consisting of INGOs operating in Mindanao, but principally in the autonomous region. The Interagency Task Force has adopted this plan and that's the plan being pursued now. 


So far today, let me first give you what are the numbers in the region in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic. In all, we already have six confirmed cases in the region and we have a total of 228 persons under investigation (PUIs). We started with a pretty much higher number for PUIs, but they've been subsequently dropped as a result of the completion of their 14-day quarantine and no further symptoms have been indicated so they were essentially dropped from the list.


As for persons under monitoring (PUMs) we have a total of 7,584 that now include all of the five provinces as well as 63 barangays in North Cotabato. Total deaths as of today are already three, mostly from Lanao area, Marawi City.


And then we also have two earlier confined persons under investigations (PUIs) that subsequently tested positive but they've already recovered, so two have actually recovered and only one remains in home quarantine.


As of today, most of the confirmed cases are actually in the Lanao area and that is why there is a stricter enhanced community quarantine implementation in the province of Lanao del Sur. 


We can tell you quickly what are the reasons for apparently the numbers coming out of Lanao del Sur. First is that the first cases in the country are actually from people in Greenhills in Metro Manila. They were Maranaos who subsequently tested positive. There was a couple -- the couple also died later. The one case in Cagayan de Oro was also a Maranao. When the lockdown in Manila was declared, there was a window of two days provided. Most of our Maranao constituents from Metro Manila entered the province of Lanao del Sur and Marawi City and so we are closely monitoring the cases in Lanao del. Sur.


The other one is that many of the participants in a religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur where a lot of people tested positive – the participants from the Philippines and the region where mostly from Lanao del Sur so when they returned home, that also contributed to the numbers that we’re seeing from the province.


The other frontline that we are closely watching is the island provinces because of the returning workers from Sabah, Malaysia where you also have a higher number of people that tested positive. There is a concerted effort to quarantine those coming from Sabah and now entering Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. We are working very, very closely with the Western Mindanao Command to provide a quarantine area. We identified three islands in the island provinces where these returning workers from Sabah can actually be quarantined and then processed before they are actually allowed to enter the communities in the island provinces. 


In reality, all of the LGUs in the region have declared community quarantine so each of the provinces and the municipalities adopted guidelines for their communities. What is becoming difficult in the region is you have island provinces which are not connected physically to the mainland provinces and we're finding it difficult to send assistance to the island provinces like transporting medical supplies, PPEs, even food assistance. That's where we have difficulty. 


In the mainland provinces, we're able to provide assistance very, very quickly because we can transport the goods from here to the other provinces like Maguindanao and Lanao Del Sur.


For now, that contingency plan is guiding the actions of the regional government. We've made several assumptions. Some of these are not yet obtaining, but many of the indicators are there and therefore a large part of the plan is actually being implemented now. We've adopted the cluster system in responding to the pandemic and there are areas where we are focused on.


Foremost is health so that's where the focus is, and law and order as a result of the need to impose community quarantine to ensure that people do not freely move without being tested and that we are able to slow down the spread of the disease. That's part of the strategy which is really to try to slow it down so that one, we will not overwhelm the health system in the region, which is very weak, also this gives us time to wait for more advanced countries to be able to develop either the vaccine or the medicine for this disease. 


We were also very much concerned about information dissemination because, one, we don't want the public to develop fear among them because that will also become very, very difficult. Also, it is important for the public to completely understand what is the nature of the virus, how it is transmitted, what are the measures that need to be there to prevent the spread; otherwise, the quarantine would not be effective if people do not really understand the connection between quarantine and the prevention and mitigation measures that are being put in place.


On government services – and this is important in the context of the transition – the region is still in the process of building up the bureaucracy. Last December, most of the employees have actually been separated except for a few accountable officers who've been asked to stay through a resolution by the BTA. But we are operating in a skeletal structure. People are just being recruited now, but most of the ministries do not have complete staff, and at a time where you have this crisis, it is really very, very difficult for most of the ministries to be able to respond.


What is good, however, is that two of the essential ministries in this fight against the pandemic are still intact because the employees have not been replaced. These are your Health and Social Services, which are still manned and staffed by former employees who have been in the region for a long time. That's what is saving the region for now; but most of the ministries are really without personnel because they are still in the process of recruiting people.


The other one that is a challenge really is the transportation and the connectivity between the different provinces. The various local government units that imposed quarantine rules for their communities is making it difficult for us to one, send our health workers to some other areas; second, send our frontliners to other areas and mobilize the resources also. For instance we don't have public transport – we cannot use public transport to ferry our personnel, emergency workers and heath workers from one province to the other so that's some area that's becoming very, very difficult.


The other one is that in Cotabato City and the region, we are already short of supplies so we cannot purchase PPEs in Cotabato – we don’t have supply for that. Even rice is now becoming very, very scarce. 


Most of the supplies that we purchased were actually bought in Manila directly from the suppliers because of the volume that we need. The major challenge is that we don't have airplanes or vessels plying the route from Manila to Cotabato. That has also been suspended, so we've made arrangement with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to use their C-130 to transport our goods from Manila. But that's not even enough, so we still have a substantial quantity of supplies in Manila, which have not been transported here. We're still waiting for that so we can mobilize these resources and deploy these to the island provinces.


That's pretty much the situation in the region. We have a plan -- part of the of the plan is try to bring together the different local government units and the different offices in the region so we can achieve a more integrated and coordinated approach to the pandemic because the initial action from LGUs in the first week of March was to secure their own communities. As a result of that, a lot of guidelines have been put in place that makes it difficult for the region to look at a more integrated approach. In the initial days, for instance, we cannot move out the supplies, rice, medical supplies from Cotabato City going to some other provinces because of the stricter rules adopted by the local government units. We communicated with a lot of LGUs and it’s now being slowly eased; they're able to mobilize our emergency responders from the region and then send them to the other areas. That's also true with our resources. We are slowly moving towards some more integrated and coordinated approach to this one. 


I think what has been adopted in the Davao region is a good example for some other regions. You cannot just have Davao City adopting its own guidelines with exclusion of the rest of the Davao region. In the Bangsamoro, we cannot just have rules for Maguindanao, rules for Lanao del Sur, rules for Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi; we need to integrate the rules so that we can maximize what we have and then try to help the other regions. 


For instance, the island provinces say we don't have to send sardines, corned beef and other canned goods (to them) because they have sufficient supply of fish, which they cannot sell to the outside market. What they need is actually rice. We can send the rice to the island provinces. We can incorporate the amount intended for sardines and corned beef to adding more rice for the island provinces. In Maguindanao, the LGUs and the region are slowly shifting towards purchasing local produce instead of the canned goods, so we can buy, for instance, the fish from fisher folks in the Liguasan Marsh or in the Pulangi River and then complement that with the vegetables being produced in Upi, in Sultan Kudarat and Sultan Mastura. This will in turn at least encourage the farmers to still continue to produce; otherwise, if you buy the canned goods from Manila then we are moving out the resources from here sending it to Manila and there would be a halt in the economic activity in the region. That's our biggest fear that if this crisis continues for several months, we may not just be facing a health crisis, but this may include a very serious disruption in the economic activity in the region and the long-term effect of that would be loss of jobs, a slowdown, major slowdown in the production sector, in the manufacturing sector, and a serious disruption in the agricultural production, and as the region the other regions move towards limiting the exit of their basic commodities such as rice then we may face a more serious problem of food security in the region. 


That’s essentially the overall direction for the contingency plan – one, to be able to address the health issues, manage the public order so we don't end up with a quarantine without supplying food and people would go into a riot because they cannot eat for several weeks because of the quarantine so we’re trying to address that by providing the relief supplies. But long term, we cannot go on quarantine exceeding probably one month or even two months. There would not be enough food supply to be able to sustain the needs of our constituents. 


On the health sector, what the Chief Minister has instructed us is to one, look at purchasing the equipment for rapid and comprehensive testing. The quarantine is supposed to be complemented by massive testing because if you just quarantine people and there's no means of determining who are positive and of isolating them subsequently then the quarantine becomes useless. I think the quarantine is there so that we have an opportunity to test the people there and then subsequently, if we found some people to be positive, then we should move them to a confined place and then begin the treatment. 


We are now a negotiating with suppliers to supply us the testing equipment. We're also talking to several institutions, including the Cotabato Regional Medical Center, so that we can house the testing machine in this institution and then we can begin the massive testing for our constituents. We are also setting up medical facility that will house people who test positive and would need care. We cannot continue to just utilize the existing hospitals in the region. We are negotiating with the Cotabato Sanitarium Hospital, which is just outside of the city, to build a facility there so that we can move patients who are really positive and who need the care. There's an ongoing negotiation and the plans are already there; the money is ready to build the facility in the Cotabato Sanitarium Hospital to house patients there if the number increases because we feel we are just starting and the numbers are already staggering. If we reach the peak sometime two months from now, the hospitals may just be overwhelmed so we need to think already about looking at medical facilities that can house potentially large number of people who would test positive and would need medical care. 


That's where the region currently is. I would appreciate if questions are asked, recommendations are made, so we can further improve on what we are currently doing in the region Thank you very much.