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Battling covid-19: INTERVIEW WITH DR ZAITON YAHAYA

COVID-19 has set off a global health crisis that is still unfolding and causing unprecedented challenges to each layer of society, especially to medical frontliners who have borne the full brunt of the pandemic. The pandemic has upended healthcare operations, exposed logistical and supply chain limitations, put the physical and mental limits of health workers to test, and forced rapid adoption of digital solutions. Despite these extraordinary challenges, they remain unwaveringly devoted in their efforts to keep fellow citizens safe and healthy during the pandemic. 

Since March 2020, Yayasan Sime Darby had so far committed RM9.8 million in mobilising 91 emergency response and relief initiatives to support individuals and communities severely impacted by COVID-19. YSD also responded to the third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in the country by committing RM1.64 million for 21 aid initiatives in Sabah. YSD was also one of the first corporate foundations in Malaysia to mobilise response efforts in the worst-hit state beginning October 2020.
 
To celebrate World Health Day 2021, YSD spoke to Dr Zaiton Yahaya, a dedicated 57-year-old Family Medicine Specialist on her invaluable experience while working under extreme pressure in Sandakan, Sabah during the third wave. A leading sexual and reproductive health (SRH) advocate in Sabah, Dr Zaiton was born and bred in Penang and currently spearheads Klinik Kesihatan Sandakan. In 2008, she founded the Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (SAGA), an NGO that provides health services related to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections to people living with HIV (PLHIV) and key affected populations in Sandakan.

Klinik Kesihatan Sandakan receiving PPE items donated by YSD.

Can you tell us more about your role in coordinating initiatives to provide access to healthcare for needy communities in Sandakan, both in your capacity as a government servant and NGO representative? 

As a senior, I am taking charge of the clinical works, overlooking the juniors as well as all 38 Family Medicine Specialists in Sabah. My line of work gives me the advantage of seeing a lot of patients and of course, various spectrums of diseases. I get to meet communities on the ground, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. Throughout the pandemic, these communities struggle with socio-economic challenges; while for some who are undocumented but have been living here their whole lives, accessing public healthcare which had already been stretched thin, becomes an even more daunting experience.

As the situation became dire, we needed any help we could get. This is where I find my role as a doctor, a (healthcare) community leader, and a non-profit organisation to seek out a better reach of help. Having worked in Sabah for more than 26 years, I am privileged to have made solid connections and worked closely with amazing individuals and organisations, which opened up doors to great opportunities for myself and the local communities I serve.

Can you please tell us more about the Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (SAGA) and why is it so dear to your heart?

I started Sabah AIDS Awareness Group Association (SAGA) because of my deep interest in making a difference in the lives of those who suffer from HIV-AIDS-related diseases. As we know, HIV-AIDS is very much associated with a stigma which causes many patients to avoid getting diagnosed due to the possible discrimination and feeling excluded by the community.

When I started treating patients with HIV, most of them were already in an advanced stage of the disease and which deepened my sympathy for those with HIV-related vulnerabilities who also face socioeconomic deterrents. Along with several passionate volunteers, we formed SAGA, a platform to help PLHIV gain access to health services related to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. We feel that it is our call and duty to attend to these group of people and alhamdulillah, not only has our work reached and helped the affected communities and individuals, but it has also received recognition in 2019, when I was named winner of the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award for my work and involvement in ending AIDS.

What are your strategies to assist these communities in need? Can you talk about YSD’s contributions in helping you improve access to healthcare for the marginalised communities?

After the Sabah state elections triggered the third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in the whole country, the public healthcare situation in Sandakan worsened drastically as we did not have enough resources such as the PPE suits to accommodate the rising number of patients in public clinics and hospitals. We only had medical supplies that could only last for a month. As we all scrambled for solutions, I reached out to all the relevant connections I have, including Ms. Muzdalifah Nasir, Head of Projects at YSD to seek help.

Alhamdullilah, we received generous donations from YSD in the form of medical equipment, PPE items, hygiene kits, as well as food items worth that have benefitted both frontliners and the communities in need in Sandakan. YSD had certainly played an instrumental role in making the situation here a lot more bearable and manageable and for that, I am truly humbled and thankful. These generous assistances meant so much to our clinic, the medical fraternity as well as the affected communities here in Sandakan.


What do you think are some of the lessons learned from this pandemic?

There is a long list of lessons brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the most important one being the need to adapt ourselves to the new normal. It is indeed a huge adjustment for all of us, but we must be committed to it. Everything will now be centred around hygiene and therefore, we must constantly ensure good hygiene practices to minimise the risks of any infection.

We must also upskill ourselves to be more IT literate as pretty much everything is now digitalised and online. Moreover, this pandemic serves as a stark reminder that it is critical to ensure healthcare facilities are always prepared and at an optimised capacity to handle any pandemic. This includes coming up with a more strategic preparedness and response plan as well and upgrading existing facilities.
 
Can you briefly explain the current situation in Sandakan, Sabah? Has the situation improved for the better?


The third wave period from October to December last year was some of the toughest times for all of us in Sandakan. Healthcare facilities could not accommodate the overflowing stream of patients and we had to set up makeshift facilities to treat COVID-19 patients. After months of working around the clock, we are finally able to stabilise the situation. As of now, fewer patients have been admitted to the hospital, thanks to the enhanced movement control order (MCO) that took place since October.

Currently, the COVID-19 outbreak is under control and the situation has improved tremendously over the past few months. However, members of the public are still wary about going to the clinic or hospital due to fear of getting exposed to risks of infection, so we are looking into new approaches to attend to our patients. As of now, we have started our vaccination programme where most of the frontliners here already received their first dose of vaccine.

What are some challenges that you are facing as a medical professional right now?

I believe the main challenge right now is in providing post-COVID care. We need to continuously take precautionary measures even when the patients have recovered from the disease. We must also look at how insurance plans are currently navigating the pandemic, and how public healthcare should operate in a more structured way and provide the right care options for post-COVID conditions. Currently, the government is aggressively working towards preparing a comprehensive guideline for post-COVID care. I am also in a team involving members across Sabah working to develop a more solid post-COVID care to be applied locally here.

What motivates you to keep going despite all the tough challenges?

As a senior doctor, I must persevere, be strong and cannot afford to fail because my team is working just as hard in the fight against the pandemic. We put our lives on the line, perform long hours of duties, all while enduring physical and mental burnouts. Therefore, I need to be brave by setting myself as an example. We also must continue to support and encourage one another while we are on duty. I am touched by the support and appreciation shown by the people of Sandakan and Malaysians at large. It is my ardent hope that I will continue working with my team in providing the best services to the public.

We will soon celebrate World Health Day on 7 April. Any message you would like to share with the general public?

Just like last year, we celebrate World Health Day during a difficult and uncertain time. To quote the United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres, “We are all in this together and we shall get through this together,” which carries a strong connotation that while the battle might be far from over, we still can and must do our level best to fight collectively because together, we can make a difference. 

On another important note, as our vaccination programme had already begun nationwide, I wish to stress the importance of being responsible and ethical citizens by staying away from deliberately spreading false information about COVID-19 vaccines. Disseminating misinformation could result in confusion and division within the community which will ultimately ruin our efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic. Together, we will win this battle against COVID-19!

Dr Zaiton and SAGA volunteers in a group photo during the distribution of food items and hygiene kits to underprivileged families and people living with HIV households in Sandakan.

Dr Zaiton personally distributing assistance to families affected by COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic in Sandakan.

Dr Zaiton Yahaya (fourth from the left) received the prestigious Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award during the Malaysian AIDS Foundation-Berjaya Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner 2019


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Last Updated:
08 Apr 2021
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