Suhakam: Politicians, campaigners least compliant with Covid-19 SOPs during Sabah poll

Voters wearing protective masks queue up to cast their votes during the Sabah state election in SK Pulau Gaya September 26, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Voters wearing protective masks queue up to cast their votes during the Sabah state election in SK Pulau Gaya September 26, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 — Politicians and supporters campaigning for their respective parties were the least observant of Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOP) put in place by the Ministry of Health for last year’s Sabah snap state election, Suhakam said today.

The finding was among several criticisms the National Human Rights Commission made from its observation of the state elections that many blamed for the third wave of infections hitting the country today.

Suhakam noted the Ministry of Health had put in place physical distancing protocols but compliance was still lax, mostly limited to Election Commission staff administering the poll and members of the public.

“Suhakam found that on polling day, Covid-19 SOPs were practiced by EC workers and voters. Camps were provided for those with symptoms to vote while MoH staff were present to assist,” commissioner Jerald Joseph said during a press conference via Zoom.

The Sabah state polls were held when daily Covid-19 cases in the state were on the rise, although at the time most were still limited to immigration detention depots, where the source of transmission was believed to be from foreign detainees.

Critics of the government argued the authorities were mostly at fault for failing to screen these detainees before placing them in cramped holding facilities. The outbreak in the holding cells eventually spread beyond the depots’ walls.

The EC, despite protests and calls for the state polls to be delayed, gave the nod for the elections to be held but on the condition that SOPs set by the MOH must be strictly adhered to.

Suhakam said today politicians and their supporters were found to have flouted the rules, including holding mass gatherings and organising crowded walkabouts throughout the campaigning trail.

The commission suggested this may have led to widespread transmission among party workers and supporters, many of whom flew in from the peninsula and later returned home likely already infected.

“It’s possible that these workers then spread the virus here,” Jerald said.

The finding has caused concerns about the viability of a general election being held amid a pandemic.

Suhakam has urged politicians to practise “great caution” when considering the matter, citing Sabah’s lesson to suggest delaying polls until the pandemic is contained.

“We are aware of the political instability and the suggestion to hold a national election. But taking lessons from the Sabah state polls, we urge the government to practise great caution in wanting to hold one amid the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.

“Even if the country needs political stability, public health is equally important.”

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