19 March 2020. It was a Thursday. Maria woke up the usual time, 5.45 am. She has the same routine every morning on a workday, Monday through Friday – wake up, clean the cats’ pen, take a shower, get dressed, make tea, feed her cats, feed the strays and off to work. But that day was different. Maria didn’t have to go to the office. Her office has activated the Business Continuity Plan. She and her other officemates in Team A were instructed to work from home as part of the social distancing response to the Covid-19 spread in the country. On 9 March 2020, Covid-19 made its debut in Brunei. Now just 10 days later, the country reported 73 cases with 2 in critical condition.
When news about the deadly virus took the world by storm back in December last year, Maria knew that it was going to eventually come to Brunei. But never in her wildest imagination that the situation could come to this. She remembered well the experience when the region was dealing with the SARS outbreak back in 2002-2003, wearing mask to work, getting body temperature taken, filling up medical form at the airport, and those were pretty much it. Other than that, the pandemic had negligible effect on her daily routine. So when the bird flu, swine flu and MERS made their rounds, the same drill took effect, nothing that anyone was not familiar with.
Even with the images of the Wuhan lockdown plastered all over the news and passed around on social media in late January 2020, life in Brunei still went on as normal. There was no let down in the preparations for the mass parade and field performance as the country was gearing up for its 36th national day celebration. Maria was involved in the mass parade, so as thousands of the country’s population. In the back of her mind, Maria did question why such a big congregation of people was allowed to proceed at the time when a dark shadow of pandemic anxiety was hovering at the horizon.
But, for the majority of the country’s population, there was not a speck of worry in their minds. Who would anyway, when the MOH’s Director of Environmental Services at a press conference on 12 February 2020 very boldly assured that “at the moment, the risk is zero” and that “there are no restrictions on mass gatherings unless there have been confirmed cases of the coronavirus.” What might contribute to this confidence, which was borderline arrogant, was that the government had already put in place a ban on the entry of people coming from China’s Hubei, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
What they might have failed to catch on was that when China was about to enforce the lockdown, some 5 million people had rushed to flee the province, some carrying with them the virus. They fled to other provinces, some went to Shanghai, some went to Hongkong, some tourists and non-Chinese nationals went back to their home countries, inadvertantly exporting the virus all over the world. In other words, by January 2020, the worms had already been out of the can, the poop had already hit the fan. Had the infected people turned to zombies like in the World War Z, the global community would have jumped off their seats instantly. So, by January 2020, the risk level should already be high and the two weeks isolation for people coming into the country should already be imposed.
In no time, the virus had landed close to home when Singapore and Malaysia reported their first cases in late January 2020. These two countries are Brunei’s closest neighbours with high Brunei visitors traffic. Yet, at that point, still no travel restrictions or self isolation upon returning was imposed. Bruneians, for their part, were relentless, still travelling to these countries with the it-wont-happen-to-me attitude. This was despite the full knowledge of how deadly the virus is. It was a ticking timebomb. Any of those Brunei travellers might well be Brunei’s first case. The MOH acknowledged this in their briefing that Maria attended on 04 March 2020 saying “It is not a matter of if, but when Brunei will get its first case” and “when that happened, the MOH is ready”. Its like sitting on a couch in front of an open window with a gun ready to shoot any intruder. But, don’t you want to at least close the window, Maria thought to herself.
Fate had chosen the Bruneians who attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia on 28 Feb-03 March 2020 to be the ones who brought the virus home. 80+ Bruneians attended the gathering and upon returning, 19 of them were tested positive. In Brunei, they had some headstart to spread the virus before one of them, Case 1 fell ill and checked himself to the hospital and eventually found positive of having the virus. Nothing that the MOH can’t handle. But what they didn’t realise at that point was that the virus entered Brunei not in one case at a time but in a wave of 19 people.
The public was informed about the first case on 09 March 2020. The situation seemed calm for a while until some people started to realise something out of the ordinary that very night. The people queueing in front of them at the supermarkets were paying for bottles and bottles of hand sanitisers, packages of face masks and yep you heard it right, toilet rolls! This didn’t just occur at the supermarket. That night close to 10pm, in her family WhatsApp group, Maria’s sister reported seeing a strange happening. They were at a Kampong kedai runcit, just a small shop, when a group of people, clearly not from that Kampong, ransacked the shop and wiped clean all the hand sanitisers. The same occurings were also reported at other kedai runcits. By the next day, all the hand sanitisers were gone completely.
While the urge to hoard on hand sanitisers and face masks is completely understandable, but toilet rolls? Maria recalled having a good laugh just the week before about the Covid-19-triggered toilet roll buying frenzy in the US, Canada, Australia and other countries. Never did she expect that Bruneians would do the same too. But, analysing it deeper, the extreme reaction to the first case only gone to show the lack of confidence that a segment of the public have on the MOH’s capabilty in containing the situation, and believing that a lockdown is imminent. But, then again, toilet rolls? Seriously? In a lockdown situation I would be more worried about food supplies, both human’s and pet’s.
10 March 2020, Day 1. Maria started her day trying not to think too much about the panic buyers. But, as evidenced from the numerous viralled WhatsApp messages that day, the public couldn’t help but worry, expecially of not knowing the extent to which Case 1 had spread the virus in the period since he returned to Brunei on 3 March 2020 up to the day he checked himself to the hospital on 07 March 2020. The messages which included stating that the man’s wife is a teacher, that the man went to an exhibition at Bridex, that the man’s children went to school, all added fuel to the panic.
At the supermarket the panic buying worsened with long queues at the cashiers and the sight of trolleys full of maggi, rice, all dettol products and wet wipes, among other stuff. Suddenly, everyone was wearing masks, a stark difference from just 24 hours before. Alas, in the late afternoon, it was announced that 5 of the man’s close contact were tested positive bringing the total cases to 6. It was also announced that school holidays was brought forward from 16 March to 11 March 2020, much to the relief of the public. Then came the bombshell – it was informed that about 90 Bruneians attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia together with Case 1 and almost all of them had made their way back to Brunei. Things started to go downhill from then on.
11 March 2020, Day 2. 5 more people were tested positive bringing the total to 11. Daily press conference was initiated where the Minister of Health and a panel of other Ministers began to provide updates on the developments relating to the health crisis. It was revealed that the Tabligh gathering that Case 1 and the other Bruneians had attended was participated by 16,000 participants from all over the world. Photos started to circulate of the gathering showing a sea of people sitting in extreme close proximity to each other. This has created outrage among many of the public for the portrayal of ignorance on the part of the attendees. Despite the high publicity of Case 1 getting the virus from the gathering, the ignorance continued when only 29 of the Bruneian attendees came forward to be tested.
There was also some level of disappointment regarding the lack of urgency and inability to immediately track and round up all of the attendees and isolate them. The wider public went to bed that night horrified to the thought that the remaining 60 or so attendees who were still at large had another 24 hours to freely do things, go places, spreading the virus to other people. They could well be among the panic buyers at the supermarkets that day. At the press conference, the Health Minister stated that mass gatherings are “discouraged”, stopping short of banning them altogether.
12 March 2020. Day 3. Maria sat observing the MMN (Parliament) Session wondering why it has not quickly wrapped up yet in light of the Covid-19 situation. She chose a seat by the corner where the surrounding seats were empty. She looked around, the hall was full of people listening in to the budget deliberations. Any one of them could have it, she thought to herself. In the afternoon, a directive came out allowing only 3 officers from each Ministry to attend the MMN Session and that the Session would wrap up on 14 March 2020. It was about time.
The total number of cases that day jumped to 25 as 14 more people were tested positive. It was revealed for the first time that 81 locals attended the Tabligh gathering in Malaysia with 70 of them having returned, while 11 were still in Malaysia. Of the 70, 4 of them were still at large. At this point, police assistance was sought to hunt down the 4 people. The Infectious Diseases (Amendment of Schedule) Notification, 2020 and the Infectious Diseases (Quarantine) (Amendment) Regulations, 2020 that were announced during that day’s press conference, requiring by law anyone who is suspected to be, a case, carrier or contact of infectious diseases to carry out medical examinations or medical treatment.
Viralled WhatsApp messages reported positive cases at a BIBD (Bank) branch and the Civil Service Institute (IPA). They later turned out to be among the Tabligh gathering attendees or their family members. All their co-workers were asked to go home and to begin 14 days isolation. The IPA personnel had just conducted a training programme involving 84 people. They too were instructed to undergo the 14 days isolation. Now everyone with relatives working at the BIBD and IPA was nervous. Of the 14 new cases, Case 25 was not related to the Tabligh gathering attendees. But, he too just came back from overseas, Cambodia then Malaysia and brought the virus with him into Brunei. By now, there should be enough reason to immediately impose 14 days isolation to anyone coming into Brunei before they even got a chance to pass the virus to other people in the country. But, nothing on that yet at that day’s press conference, neither was there any ban on mass gatherings yet.
13 March 2020. Day 4. 12 new cases bringing the total to 37. It was the first Friday since the virus made its way into the country. It was Friday prayer day. Although the Imams were urged to shorten the Friday sermon, the risk of random transmission even with the shorter sermon was still high. Elsewhere, gatherings like weddings, Doa Arwah and Tahlil were still conducted which only proved that using the word “discouraged” didn’t have much impact on preventing people from proceeding with their mass gathering plans. Finally, at that day’s press conference, a ban on mass gatherings, including weddings and sporting events, was announced. All planned national events were to be called off with the Israk Mikraj slated for 22 March 2020 being the first victim. Another bombshell was dropped at the press conference. It turned out that a number of the mass Tabligh gathering attendees upon returning to Brunei had attended a local Tabligh gathering on 05-08 March 2020. The level of ignorance was shocking to say the least.
14 March 2020. Day 5. 3 new cases bringing the total to 40. The new cases included a 9 month old girl who is the daughter of one of the Tabligh gathering attendees. At the press conference it was informed that all of the Tabligh gathering attendees have been traced much to the relief of the public. The government caught wind of the upcoming mass Tabligh gathering in Indonesia on 19-22 March 2020 and strongly advised the public against travelling overseas in order prevent more importation of the virus. If there is any lesson to learn from the attempt to prevent mass gatherings, merely saying “discouraged” or “advised to avoid” will fall on deaf ears.
15 March 2020. Day 6. 10 new cases bringing the total to 50. Case 25 who returned to Brunei on 04 March 2020 did a good fair share of his virus spreading work attending a family event on 08 March 2020 and passing on the virus to a number of the unsuspecting family members. So as the 8 people who got the virus from attending the 05 March 2020 Tabligh gathering in Brunei, spreading the virus to their families, friends and workmates. At this stage, it had become obvious that the contact tracing was steps behind and couldn’t get ahead of the spread to close the floodgate. To the public’s horror, viralled WhatsApp messages showed a list of Bruneians who registered to participate in the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon in KK on 14-16 March 2020. This was despite the “strong advise” not to go overseas. At the press conference that day, the overdue ban was announced where Brunei citizens, permanent residents and foreigners holding valid identification cards are not allowed to leave the country starting on 16 March 2020 except for medical treatment, attend court hearing or studies overseas.
16 March 2020. Day 7. 04 new cases bringing the total to 54. Viralled WhatsApp messages that day were about the chaos at the land border checkpoints. It seemed like some people didn’t get the memo about the travel ban. This was not all that surprising. There are people who actually don’t watch the news, don’t listen to the local radio, don’t follow the developments. But, we do know that everyone has a mobile phone, thus at time of crisis as such, sms push notifications would be more effective to get the important messages across to everyone. Just saying.
People started to talk about banning entry into Brunei, which has not been imposed yet. At this point, it was very clear that thermal scanning at entry points didn’t help much when anyone who looks healthy, with no symptoms, normal body temperature, can well be carrying the virus in his/her body. Alas, one of the 4 new cases, Case 53, is a British national who entered the country on 09 March 2020. He had close to a week window to spread the virus to anyone he came in contact with before he was tested and found positive.
At the supermarkets, the panic buying continued, with people now targeting eggs. Perhaps the rice hoarders just realised that they needed some eggs to go with the rice during a lockdown situation.
At the press conference, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced the closure of Mosques for a week from 17 to 23 March 2020 and that there will be no Friday prayer on 20 March 2020. It was also informed at the press conference that one of the positive cases is in the ICU and another two in the CCU. At this stage, sentiments about the press conference had also begun to emerge particularly on its “dryness” and seemingly lacking conviction that were thought to be not commensurate to a crisis situation, where the Ministers were sitting down instead of standing on a podium; reading out prepared scripts instead of delivering the updates off the cuff; still looking suave in their fancy suits and ties when looking all pretty for the camera should be the last thing on their minds.
17 March 2020. Day 8. People woke up to a sombre day as they heard the subuh prayer call knowing that the mosques were closed. By that day, a number of agencies had activited their BCP, including BSP and TelBru. At the government sector, departments were still in a wait-and-see mode. They were so used to red tape, even at time of crisis like this no one was bold enough to activate anyting without any formal instructions from their big bosses. So, Maria, like other civil servants, still had to go to the office that day and face the risk of random transmission.
At the press conference that day, it was informed that there were 2 new cases bringing the total to 56 with 2 in critical condition. The smaller number of new cases didn’t bring much comfort knowing that the virus had already broken loose in the country. The Minister of Education announced at the press conference that Brunei students overseas whose learning institutions had been closed or activated the online learning due to the Covid 19 crisis were to be brought home. Meanwhile, adressing the “egg issue”, the Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism assured that eggs are enough for everyone up to the end of the year. At this stage, assuring the public about the supply of hand sanitisers and masks for everyone would be more apt than eggs. It was sad to think that Maria had to supply her mom with makeshift liquid spray of dettol and water mixture for temporary protection, before the hand sanitisers come back on the shelves.
18 March 2020. Day 9. 12 new cases bringing the total to 68. As the number of cases kept on going up, concerns started to grow on the impending situation where the spread exceeds the MOH capacity to treat and contain. Yes, Brunei had dealt with the Swine flu back in 2009-2010, but Covid 19 had proven to be a different beast altogether. It is deadlier and spread more easily than the Swine flu. It took 9 days for reality to set in, the reality that we were actually not ready. At that day’s press conference, like a flick of a switch, a slew of overdue measures to help slow the spread were announced, all to begin on 19 March 2020. These included the closure of open markets; restaurants and eateries to not accept dine-in customers; closure of all sports complexes and facilities including gyms, bowling alleys and golf courses; closure of museums and galleries, youth centres and libraries; all Ministries and Departments to implement BCP; and at last, the implementation of the 14-day self–isolation requirement for individuals arriving in Brunei from any country. Oya, and also at last, the use of sms push notifications to get Covid-19-related information to the public.