Who’s heading home for Christmas this year? Not us, out-of-state Sabahans say

Malls in Kota Kinabalu, usually bedecked in glitzy Christmas decorations at this time of the year, are seeing only sporadic crowds, usually on weekends. — Picture by Julia Chan
Malls in Kota Kinabalu, usually bedecked in glitzy Christmas decorations at this time of the year, are seeing only sporadic crowds, usually on weekends. — Picture by Julia Chan

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KOTA KINABALU, Dec 13 — Even after Sabah re-opened its borders to all Malaysians, Sabahans looking to return home for the end-of-the-year holidays are thinking twice because of the high costs, health risks and hassle of travelling during Covid-19 times.

Many Sabahans who spoke to Malay Mail said that they would not be flying home for Christmas even though borders have reopened and flights are reasonably priced.

“It was a painful but necessary decision for our family,” said Mary Ann Paul, a 32-year-old mother of three, including a one-year-old toddler, adding that it has been a particularly tough year for the whole family.

She has spent almost every year-end holiday with her family in Penampang since she and her husband moved to Kuala Lumpur nine years ago, except for one year when she had just given birth.

“It’s important for us to spend Christmas together. We have a big family and I have five other siblings and most of my family are devout Catholics, so it means a lot to us to gather once a year at least,” she said.

This year has been particularly hard for the family as one of her uncles died and her elderly father has been facing health problems.

Depending on how much time she and her husband, also from Penampang, can spare away from work, she usually flies home to spend time with both families for a week, although she once flew home for just three days, just for Christmas.

“But this time, it’s just too much to fly the whole family of five home and then we have to consider our elderly parents as well when we are back. And with my toddler, there’s just no way,” she said.

“I miss my home and family so much... but as much as I want to go home for the holidays and have them see the latest addition to the family, with everything that has happened this year we just cannot,” she said.

The family would have to pay roughly RM1,500 for flight tickets for five people — a reasonable sum — but add another RM3,000 for the Covid-19 RT-PCR swab tests (in Kuala Lumpur and then again in Kota Kinabalu) and costs become prohibitive quickly.

“But more than that, it’s putting our children through the swab tests twice and my family back home at risk, the risks are just too high for us,” she said.

Deiseree Daniel (centre, with baby) usually goes home to Kota Kinabalu for a big year-end family gathering like this one last year. It will be a sombre affair for the family this year. — Picture courtesy of Deiseree Daniel
Deiseree Daniel (centre, with baby) usually goes home to Kota Kinabalu for a big year-end family gathering like this one last year. It will be a sombre affair for the family this year. — Picture courtesy of Deiseree Daniel

Deiseree Estelle Daniel, a graphic designer from Kuala Lumpur, was already cut-up about not being able to fly home to her hometown of Inanam to vote in the September 26 state polls and said her reasons for not flying home then still stands.

“I’d like to go home more than anything but I think we have to wait till next year. It is too costly,” she said explaining that she has two children for whom to pay for swab tests.

“We don’t want to be spending on swab tests,” she said, adding that they are opting to wait until the situation is more settled.

It will be a quiet Christmas with her nuclear family of two children, aged five and seven years, in their Shah Alam home this year, as they are also not having people over.

“We will just have dinner at home. Church isn’t allowed and we don’t want to invite people over so everyone, even the family back home, is having a quiet Christmas only. Prevention is better than cure,” she said.

Costs and health risks are a big concern for families but there is also the hassle of travelling with children, as in the case of George Kan, a 36-year-old Sarawakian and his Sabahan wife Angela, who have a five-year-old son and a four-year old daughter.

The couple, who live in Kuala Lumpur, usually alternates the year-end holidays in their respective hometowns of Kuching and Ranau but this year, it will be the first time neither has returned to their hometowns at all.

“We try to take the children back once a year at least so they are familiar with their roots and extended family. But there has been no opportunity this year to go back.

“Money is not the issue but do you know how hard it is to travel with children? Travelling on a plane is stressful enough... now you have to make them stand quietly in line or wait for their turn, it is a little too much. I guess we will spend Christmas in KL this time,” said George, an oil and gas company executive.

While it is almost certainly a no-go for most families, even solo travellers are having second thoughts about flying home.

“I will most likely fly home but I was really put off by the costs of the swab tests. The flights are cheap but to do the swab tests both ways is costly,” said Elizabeth, who is still wondering if it is worth the money and hassle to spend Christmas with the family. 

Sabah recently announced they would re-open borders for all social visits, so that families wanting to celebrate the year-end holidays and Christmas together may be reunited after almost nine months of some form or other of restricted movements due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially, Sabah had a low number of Covid-19 cases but since the state polls in September which triggered a third wave of the deadly virus, Sabah has been the worst-hit state, at one point accounting for more than half of all Covid-19 cases in the country.

It now accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all Covid-19 cases in the country at 31,260 out of 76,265 cases as of December 9, at 12 noon.

At the infection’s peak, Sabah shut its borders and implemented a state-wide lockdown, restricting inter-district travel and imposing a 6pm curfew in its red zones.

As the number of cases begin to dwindle, the government has gradually opened up more business sectors and most recently, opened up its borders to Malaysians and the neighbouring country of Brunei to help spur the economy.

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