‘A dream come true’: BaSulTa provinces receive medical equipment and supply

IF THERE’S ONE bright spot to observe during the fasting month of Ramadan among the mostly Muslim residents of the country’s southern backdoor, it would be the series of construction of new medical facilities and donation of medical equipment that were once nonexistent and inaccessible to the island residents of archipelagic BaSulTa (Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) Region.

The latest of these are additional sea ambulances equipped with life-saving emergency devices for patients en route to the nearest hospital facility, also in any one of these islands, the closest provincial territories the Philippines have with its next-door  neighbor, Malaysia.

For the once most neglected region in the country and where the nearest medical facility is in Zamboanga City at the southernmost tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula, the sea ambulances provide the most assuring presence of emergency transport for the indigent patients of these poorest provinces of the Philippines.

The sea ambulances were provided by the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), while a few others were donated.

The latest came from the Japanese embassy and the International Organization for Migration, which donated two sea ambulances, along with 24 Covid-19 antigen test kits, three cold chain vehicles, 18 vaccine carriers with thermo loggers (six per province of BaSulTa), five gen expert machines with cartridges, and six multi-purpose tents for community-based vaccine campaign support.

Archipelagic transport

What turned out best was the conception of a sea ambulance for the BaSulTa region, which has more than 400 islands and islets.

On February 13, the Bangsamoro government turned over to Tawi-Tawi one sea ambulance for Languyan Municipal Hospital worth P3 million, and a land ambulance for Datu Halun Sakilan Memorial Hospital (DHSMH) worth P3-million. 

These sea ambulances were the additional equipment given alongside the main donations of facilities and medicines to contain Covid-19.

Bigger facilities were given that day that included a two-storey ward building worth P16-million, laboratory building worth P4 million, operating room/delivery room worth P5-million and a Temporary Treatment and Monitoring Facility worth P10 million for DHSMH.

The BARMM also gave 12 laptops for the Integrated Public Health Office and the province’s 11 rural health units, 15 boxes of antigen test kits, all worth P750, 000.

Five other hospitals in the province received different equipment worth P34 million and a mobilization fund for National Vaccination Days amounting to P1.5 million.

Two days earlier, the BARMM Ministry of Health gave three sea ambulances and three land ambulances, 35 boxes of antigen tests kits, 43 units of laptops, and essential medicines to the three island provinces.

 A year earlier, in August 2021, the MOH turned over two land and two sea ambulances to the Integrated Public Health Office (IPHO) of Tawi-Tawi.

The sea ambulance is likewise equipped with first aid or emergency treatment equipment, such as a nebulizer, oxygen tank, automated external defibrillator, suction machine and delivery and airway set.

Each ambulance can accommodate 10 to 12 passengers.

All in all, the Bangsamoro government said it provided a total of 73 sea and land ambulances to different health offices, hospitals, and rural health stations across the region, including the BaSulTa area, MOH Minister, Dr. Bashary A. Latiph, said.


MOH Assistant Secretary Abdulhalik Kashim emphasized three points in his speech in one of the turnover ceremonies: a message of thanks saying, “We are always grateful for the blessings; a message of responsibility. “If we are given this ambulance and other equipment from government we must take care of them; and a message of love that “we are here Tawi-Tawi because we love Tawi-Tawi.”

 Tawi-Tawi IPHO Chief Dr. Sangkula Laja expressed gratitude to the Bangsamoro government for the medical facilities and supplies. “We give thanks to Allah for all the things we receive from BARMM. We have this Temporary Treatment and Monitoring Facility and we now have many ambulances when before we have zero,” he said.

BaSulTa Provincial Health Officers and representatives, Rural Health Units, and City Health Officer of Lamitan expressed their appreciation to the MOH and Bangsamoro Government for the huge assistance they received to augment emergency situation services and support in the delivery of basic health and social care in their respective localities.

 “I could not believe that the key of ambulance is already on my hand.  Rest assured that we will take good care of it and use it properly in serving our utmost needed constituents in our area,” said Ms. Parida Perez, Health Education and Promotion Officer of Basilan.

 “No words of expression of thanks could describe our feelings we had now for the support we received from MOH and the BARMM government as a whole,” Lamitan City Health Office Dr. Mikaela T. Puri, Chief of Technical Division, said.

 Both PHO of Sulu Dr. Fahra Tan-Omar and Chief of Hospital in Siasi District Hospital Dr. Ejil A. Imlan graced the event and expressed their deepest thanks to MOH and BARMM for the continuous support they received.

 Dr. Imlan said, “for more than 20 years now, we requested ambulance but we failed always. Only this time in the Bangsamoro Government that our dream came true.”

Among the people that Dr. Sangkula Laja, chief of DHSMH, mentioned as having helped these donations was Member of Parliament, Amir Mawallil, who he said sponsored the procurement of these equipment and identified the provincial hospital (DHSMH) as recipient of one land ambulance, one mobile X-ray ambulance, and one sea ambulance from his share of the development fund.

 Mawallil is a native of the said municipality, Laja added. 

Another legislator he identified was MP Al-Syed Sali, who Laja said identified the provincial hospital as recipient of one sea ambulance from his share of the fund too.

Left less prepared

These were turned over in Zamboanga City, where the IOM said it hoped to scale up health-related operations in the BARMM.

 The IOM said the BARMM “has been left less prepared for health catastrophes such as the coronavirus pandemic because of years of underdevelopment and conflict”.

 “The help comes at an ideal time as the government ramps up its efforts to recover from the pandemic and improve its Covid-19 vaccination program across the country,” said Troy Dooley, IOM Philippines officer-in-charge.

“We believe that the given equipment will help to ensure that no one is left behind in these vital services, including vulnerable populations like migrants, returnees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs),” Dooley added.

BARMM Chief Minister Ahod Ebrahim commended the IOM and the Japanese Government for their prompt assistance.

 “The global pandemic struck at one of our most crucial political periods – the transition. I pray that the medical equipment would be useful to our beloved brothers and sisters in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi,” Chief Minister stated.

 The IOM recognized that the financial and organizational demands of responding to the pandemic had strained regional capacity, delaying the Bangsamoro transition and normalization process.

 “As the Bangsamoro Government intends to complete its mandate by the regional election in 2025, IOM and the Government of Japan, strongly expect that the support would help decrease the Covid-19-induced limits and hurdles in establishing long-term peace and prosperity in the region,” Chief Minister Ebrahim added.

Ambassador Kazuhiko Koshikawa of Japan also stated that Tokyo would continue to help the peace process in the region.

“I am hoping and looking forward that the ambulances could be used properly on its main purpose in responding to health emergency from home to hospital or RHU (regional health unit) to save the lives of our needy constituents and should not be used for personal interest,” Minister Latiph added.

 The support is funded under the General Appropriations Act of of the Bangsamoro (GAAB) 2021, Special Development Fund, and National Immunization Program (NIP) Fund.

 MOH Director for Operation Dr. Tato Usman said, “we should be thankful for whatever favor and blessings we received.  In doing well our mandates, roles and responsibilities as health service providers, we will be rewarded not only here in the world but also in the hereafter.”

The new assistance to mobility and treatment of patients, as well as new medical infrastructure facilities came in the wake of declining cases of Covid-19.

The MOH said the number of coronavirus cases in the Bangsamoro Region continued to drop with only 18 active cases as of March 23, of which seven are from Maguindanao, four from Cotabato City, seven from Lanao del Sur, including Marawi City.

No infection was reported so far from the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

Although the BARMM has one of the lowest vaccination coverage in the country, the BaSulTa region has better coverage total vaccination coverage of 30.11 percent, than the BARMM’s  mainland provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur with an average coverage of 20.79 percent.

Abas said vaccination activities in the region would be continued even during the month of Ramadhan “as the Bangsamoro Darul Ifta stated in its fatwa (sermon) that vaccines will not nullify or void the observance of fasting.”

MOH Director General Dr. Ameril Usman urged those who are yet to be vaccinated to get their Covid-19 shots and reminded the public not be complacent with the region being classified under Alert Level 2.

Under this level, establishments are allowed to operate at a maximum of 50 percent indoor venue capacity for fully vaccinated individuals and those below 18 years of age, even if unvaccinated, and 70 percent outdoor venue capacity.

“We are still far away from 80 percent vaccination rate (in achieving)… herd immunity in the region. The cooperation of the general public and all sectors in the government including our media friends will play a crucial role in increasing the almost 27 percent or more than 900,000 total number of region’s population currently vaccinated compared to 3.5 million target population,” said Dr. Usman.

“MOH always stands firmly that vaccine really works against Covid-19, it is safe, halal and free,” added Usman, reiterating that fake news claiming vaccines can cause one’s death or turn an individual into a zombie are baseless since majority of the world’s population are already vaccinated.

Image credits: Contributed photo

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