BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah on Monday announced a special $400 monthly allowance for healthcare workers who have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing the nation in a special titah broadcast on Radio Televisyen Brunei, the monarch praised frontliners and volunteers who have been working around the clock to contain the outbreak and support the continuation of essential services.

Beginning from March 2020 until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the special allowance will be handed out to doctors, nurses, paramedics, ambulance drivers, volunteers, hospital cleaners, security guards and all staff at the Ministry of Health.

The monarch also singled out praise for healthcare workers at Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha Hospital, the National Isolation Centre and quarantine shelters, who put themselves at risk by being in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

“If some people feel bored staying at home, [these frontliners] are checking the clock to see when they can return to their families. At home, their children are waiting and miss them,” His Majetsy said. “This is just the emotional aspect of being a frontliner, and does not speak to the risks they face on the job.”

“To appreciate their service and loyalty, it is fitting that special allowance be given,” he said.

The sultan also expressed his gratitude to non-medical personnel who have been working on the frontlines, including law enforcement, the military, National Disaster Management Centre, Royal Brunei Airlines and companies in the private sector who stay open to provide essential services to the public during Brunei’s the partial shutdown.

Market vendors, taxi drivers to receive financial aid

His Majesty acknowledged the struggles faced by small businesses, self-employed and low-income workers who have borne the brunt of the economic impact from the COVID-19 crisis.

While several economic stimulus packages have already been announced, the sultan said tamu and market vendors will be receiving special welfare assistance through the Brunei Islamic Religious Council, although the amount was not disclosed.

With borders closed to tourists and Ramadhan markets cancelled this year, stall operators have been hit hard by the pandemic which has drastically reduced their source of income.

Many vendors at the Gadong Night Market have closed their stalls as they see fewer customers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

The sultan said the special welfare assistance will also extend to taxi and water taxi drivers, whose main source of income is derived from tourists.

The monarch also urged landlords to waive or reduce rent for shop owners during the crisis, saying it would be “an act of charity”.

He added that the launch the digitalised National Welfare System in July will also speed up the delivery of government aid.

Investing in healthcare

His Majesty also outlined several investments the government has made to address the coronavirus outbreak, including the construction of a new virology lab to increase testing capacity for COVID-19; $11 million for a new wing at the National Isolation Centre; and an artificial intelligence system to forecast infection trends and create medical resource mapping.

The AI-driven platform was built in collaboration with China’s Yidu Cloud Technology, a medical technology company, to improve the quality and efficiency of Brunei’s healthcare system.

The new National Virology Lab on Jalan Sumbiling. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

With the addition of the new virology lab — which was built in just two weeks — Brunei has the capacity to process 1,000 COVID-19 tests per day. To date, the Ministry of Health has conducted over 10,000 tests for COVID-19 and has one of the highest testing rates in the world at one for every 43 people.

Construction for new building for the National Isolation Centre, which begun almost three weeks ago, is expected to be complete in a matter of days.