COVID-19 in Brunei Darussalam: How Does the Small Nation Cope?

Article

Brunei Darussalam, an independent sultanate situated on the northeastern tip of Borneo Island, has done exceptionally well in safeguarding its community against a local transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since its first outbreak on 9 March 2020, a whole-of-nation approach has been taken to tackle the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Sultan Omar Mosque
Teaser Image Caption
The iconic Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the nation's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan

As of 6 May 2021, Brunei has gone a full year with zero community transmission of COVID-19. Its urgent call for 70% of its total population to be vaccinated by the year’s end has also received a warm response from the public. As of 25 June 2021, 16% of the total population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

With a population of under half a million located on a total land area of 5,765 sq. km, Brunei is uniquely positioned to use its small-nation status for its management of the pandemic. Small in size and number, it has been able to leverage on transparency and an openness of information from health authorities to address public concerns. Besides the health sector, other ministries have taken the cue to increase engagement, communications and accountability to the public.

Vaccination Bru
Long queues of people on 26 May 2021 in Bandar Seri Begawan during the opt-in vaccination drive open freely to locals and foreigners alike. Vaccination centers have been set up in all four districts of Brunei Darussalam, including Bandar Seri Begawan, Tutong and Temburong

Successful Tackling of COVID-19

The pandemic was managed well and handled with swift responses. Brunei’s winning the war against the coronavirus accentuates a strong social cohesion within a nation calling itself the “Abode of Peace” (“Darussalam”). In this unprecedented crisis, an unparalleled harmony and robust exercise of unity have been foregrounded to quell social fissures and fractures that have also arisen at a time of great anxiety and, for many, uncertainty.

For instance, an inter-ministerial cooperation and enhanced communication established by the government with the general public through daily press conferences, in which journalists freely channel queries from the public, have increased public confidence in the nation’s competence in managing COVID-19. In addition, social responsibilities such as maintaining physical distancing, self-isolating when symptomatic, and scanning QR codes via the BruHealth tracing app upon entry to public spaces have been communicated effectively and consistently.

Brunei2
A typical weekend crowd at Bandar Seri Begawan during the new normal

Brunei3
Eating out and enjoying the company of others in a popular cafe in Gadong. Once scanning the BruHealth app, customers are able to enter and sit freely under the new normal.

Due to effective controls, a return to physical schooling after a brief closure from March to May 2020 enabled children to receive their education comparable to pre-COVID-19 times. During the de-escalation period, direct teacher-student communication was reestablished, which was met with relief from parents who had previously supervised online-teaching at home. By reopening at staggered times, schools enforced safe social distancing measures among its attendees. As per new normal - rules endorsed by the Ministry of Education, taping on seats and benches have since been removed to accommodate for more relaxed social movements within school compounds. 

Significantly, Brunei’s successful virus containment is attributed to its responsive citizenship too. While the Ministries of Health, Finance and Economy, Education, Religious Affairs, Home Affairs and Info-communications work together to mitigate the various repercussions of COVID-19, the public’s compliance with regulations has also contributed to the nation’s resilience. With many turning online and to social media, these platforms have been used to encourage family and friends to maintain social distancing and abide by travel restrictions. Crucially, residents benefit from the government’s public communication strategy.

Poster Brunei
More guidelines for curbing the spread of coronavirus issued by health authorities that are posted in public places.

Challenges of COVID-19

Despite the successful containment, there remains several challenges for the nation and its people. A small data sample detailing various experiences will be used to discuss a few of these challenges. This data set consists of semi-structured interviews conducted in January to February 2021, which aimed to get local and non-local residents to narrate their experiences of living with COVID-19 in Brunei. Even with present studies on the social, economic, cultural and physical impacts of the virus in Brunei, people’s actual experiences are not highlighted or discussed sufficiently.

Governed through a Malay Islamic Monarchy, His Majesty the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has called for continued vigilance amid the domestic loosening of social restrictions. Nonetheless, prolonged international travel restrictions, economic insecurities, additional work commitments, and personal trauma due to the health risks of COVID-19 have caused anxiety.

His Majesty Sultan Brunei
His Majesty the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Her Majesty the Queen Saleha on Golden Jubilee Celebration of Accession to the Throne in 5 October 2017

Socio-Emotional Impact of Familial Separation

Social fissuring and emotional crisis that result from familial separation comprise some of the individual experiences. A Filipino domestic worker in Brunei shared her emotional challenges “because I want to go home,” and explicitly states “That's why I'm very emotionally because I want to see my family.” Her extended physical separation from her husband and sons have been very difficult and, in turn, led to a degree of tension due to their lack of understanding of the reasons that she is unable to return home during COVID-19. Communicating with her family every day, she speaks of the way her husband states to her “In Brunei is okay still,” and he cannot comprehend why there are travel restrictions in place.

Another local frontline medical staff told that her children “just couldn’t stay away from me because I’m their mother obviously, so it was, you know I was by choice isolated from my family.” For three months while working in the national COVID-19 swabbing centre, she self-isolated in her family’s guest house. As a result, her children’s nanny was needed to step up her duties as not only was she assigned to essential childcare but also e-learning support for the children during this period that the frontline worker retrospectively referred to as an “interesting time.”

Carte Jaune
The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) or Yellow Card or Vaccine Passport is most likely required for Bruneians to travel abroad.

Economic Insecurities during COVID-19

“There’s a lot of financial difficulties.” Migrant workers in Brunei face the risk of job cuts or losing their livelihoods in case homesickness leads them to return home.  One domestic worker speaks about the economic plight of her friend: “She go back to the Philippines last October, but one is not allowed to come back into Brunei. That's why I am always aware , I always decide that am willing to stay in Brunei and like if I go Philippines, I have no work so it's very difficult for me.” Job losses due to COVID-19’s impact on various industries have also meant that families are bringing in smaller incomes. Nonetheless, daily expenses on basic food needs and children’s’ tuition fees have to be covered. 

A Bruneian mother, who volunteered in quarantine centers, also bemoans the loss of paid work opportunities. Prior to COVID-19, she often travelled overseas to conduct her consultancies. Although borders had not yet closed in February 2020, she discontinued her travels. She explains, “at that time I decided it was not worth the [health] risk especially because I have two kids,” but it also entailed that her family went from being a double to a single income household.

Major Disruptions to Work-Life Balance

At times of reduced staff numbers, a “double workload” is also assigned to the remaining workers. A private school educator remarks that  multiple preparations of home packets, online teaching, and marking of students’ assignments during COVID-19 has caused him much stress. He explains that he and his colleagues, who are mostly foreigners, “didn’t have enough time for relaxation” as they worked a “tiring and challenging” schedule. He started to blur the boundaries between his leisure time and working hours. In response to a question about the kind of activities that he did to relax during this time, he admits “I would actually do my work.”

Personal Trauma of COVID-19 Positive Cases

A twenty-year-old student who was diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2 narrates that “it was a very bad experience.” The uncertainty of the future especially played on his mind. As he articulates, “knowing that you have the virus inside you, you don't know what will happen next.” Both his physical separation from loved ones and contending with the virus all by himself in the National Isolation Centre resulted in his depression. He states, “It was pretty hard and was very, very sad because I have to go far away from my family and then deal with it alone.” When recovered, he found it difficult to resume his studies: “I tried my best to focus, but it's really hard.” He also mentioned that he did not avail himself of help to navigate his post-recovery.

Kampong Ayer
Brunei's water taxi links the Bandar Seri Begawan's waterfront to the water village of Kampung Ayer

Conclusion

Social splits due to family separation, anxiety regarding economic insecurities, cultural fractures in a disrupted work-life balance, and an uncertainty about a post-COVID-19 future contribute to increasing vulnerabilities faced by communities during the pandemic. In the light of these personal challenges, structural systems of support can be improved. At a micro-level, the compassionate responses of family, friends and employers can help to alleviate the adverse effects of the pandemic suffered by people from all walks of life.

At the macro-level, tightening laws to protect migrant workers from being over-worked, increasing access to mental health services and  the stigma attached to COVID-19 positive patients, which inhibits recovery, should be eliminated. While Brunei’s economic stimulus package for MSMEs and self-employed individuals in the early days is commendable, assistance to low-paid migrant workers continue to be rather limited. As COVID-19 shows no signs of waning, significant efforts must be made to mitigate social, cultural, economic and psychological stresses for individuals, considering their experiences. For the longer term, individual efforts and collective agency to promote emotional, cultural, financial and health literacy will serve, both local and migrant communities in Brunei, well.

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Dr. Hannah Ho is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is the National Team Leader in Brunei Darussalam, NUS-ARI (National University of Singapore-Asian Research Institute) in the project of “Living with COVID-19 in Southeast Asia: Crisis, Community and Control” Singapore.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.