Seven months ago, Malaysia was the talk of the world. As the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his Cabinet relied heavily on the advice of Director-General of Health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, keeping the spread of COVID-19 to a minimum.
However, in the past six weeks, all this has changed as overwhelming political greed and lust for power has trampled all over the need to control a national health crisis.
A move by the prime minister to shore up support for his shaky coalition prompted a snap election in the rural eastern state of Sabah, the date for which was set for Sept. 26.
At the time, Sabah — with a population of 3.5 million and roughly the size of the Benelux countries or, in a more local context, half the size of Cambodia — was dealing with a couple of COVID-19 clusters.
Healthcare facilities were reporting 25-30 new cases a day, which from a medical perspective was problematic but not serious.
Nevertheless, the numbers were actually causing some concern in a country that had barely reported 10,000 cases since the start of the pandemic and anything more than 100 cases a day was seemingly calamitous.
Then heavyweight politicians began turning up in Sabah in their droves to hit the campaign trail.
Social distancing and movement restrictions quickly went out the window as politicians and activists alike tramped across the state, trying to drum up support for their cause, while in the halls of the Ministry of Health you could almost hear the thud of Noor Hisham’s head hitting his desk.
The net result was case numbers exploded. Noor Hisham — when he had managed to pull his head out of his hands — reported a new cluster in the days after the election.
Then, he was reporting two new clusters and in then it was multiple clusters across the state.
From 25-30 cases a day, Sabah was soon reporting 800-900 new COVID-19 cases every 24 hours and looking at the horrifying prospect of a humanitarian crisis it had a snowball’s chance in Hell of combating.
With only nine public hospitals in the state, healthcare workers were quickly overwhelmed. By Nov. 5, Sabah had reported more than half of the nation’s 30,000 cases and 277 deaths.
As numbers began to spike in early October, the federal government in Putrajaya locked Sabah down, placing districts under varying degrees of movement restriction according to the severity of localised infection rates.
It was not long before the state was quarantined from the rest of the country.
This created problems on different levels, from day-to-day survival to a healthcare system at breaking point.
One of the problems of forcing people to stay at home that the government had not been able to solve from its first lockdown in March was how to get daily essentials to communities.
There were numerous stories of families going hungry in urban areas with excellent infrastructure, as the authorities struggled to keep up with deliveries to millions of homes.
Even in Sabah’s state capital Kota Kinabalu, the infrastructure is nowhere near that of the Klang Valley conurbation surrounding Kuala Lumpur. Reported instances of starving people breaking the lockdown to forage for food are rife.
Medical centres were — and still are — just inundated. Images from national media appeared to show exhausted Kota Kinabalu healthcare workers tending to COVID-19 patients in a temporary isolation unit constructed in the hospital parking lot.
The Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) has begged for urgent assistance in terms of manpower and equipment for what it has said is a state-wide healthcare emergency, bordering on a humanitarian crisis.
Yet, its cries for help have been largely ignored. It got to the point where the only words in Sabah’s favour were from Noor Hisham in a Facebook post, asking beleaguered healthcare workers to dig deep and do their best — nothing about help was on the way, arranging for fresh supplies or even much needed staff.
Reading between the lines, the message was abundantly clear: Sabah, you’re on your own.
Rather than a concerted effort to end the unfolding disaster, October brought more political manoeuvring.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim made a move to become prime minister, announcing that he had the majority backing of MPs to take back control of Parliament for the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which had governed until 2018.
As a backdrop, it should be noted that, in the absence of a robust domestic entertainment industry, Malaysian politicians have become much more than mere lawmakers to the populous and, as such, enjoy celebrity status above and beyond that which we see in other countries.
Given the frequency with which politicians call press conferences, or say or do something to draw attention to themselves, you would be well within your rights to think they crave the spotlight more than their duty to serve the people.
The major players never go anywhere without a swarm of so-called advisers and command legions, if not armies, of loyal fans complete with matching attire.
Thousands turned up for the trial verdict of former prime minister Najib Razak recently, accused of massive corruption, abuse of power and money laundering.
He is still adored, nay exalted, everywhere he goes — yes, he’s free to walk the streets despite the fact that he is a convicted criminal supposed to be serving a 12-year prison sentence, not to mention that he is still a serving MP.
So, when Anwar announces he has the support to lead the country, Malaysia, in almost myopic fashion forgets about Sabah, aided by almost blanket coverage in the national press focused on the latest episode of its favourite soap opera.
Meanwhile, Sabah is left to its own devices.
It suffers in the knowledge that all the hype of the election and the promises by a slew of lawmakers, including the prime minister, is again just lip service for this already marginalised state.
The promises are empty, the politicians have served their own ends, and have packed up and gone home once again. No help is coming.
In fact, the only thing Sabahans can look forward to is more hardship and misery.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.