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Covid-19: A proactive Malaysia? More like fire-fighting…..

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Written by Aziz Hassan

May 10, 2020.

Recollections & Reflections

IN a few days Malaysia would have been two months into a partial lockdown in its fight against the pandemic which has sent countries around the world struggling to find a way out of this tragedy that has affected over 4.132 million people so far and caused over 281,000 deaths according to latest statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) since the first case was reported late December.

The government here calls it a movement control order but compared to many countries, the Malaysian MCO has been stricter than the lockdowns elsewhere. With the easing of some restrictions imposed on the economic sectors, it is now called the conditional MCO which is being extended by a month to June 9.

But as can be seen from what has happened in both east and west, a lockdown alone doesn’t guarantee success. On the contrary, it has been the opposite in certain countries but experts put this down to a late reaction by the governments concerned despite the obvious problems countries in Asia especially had to deal with earlier.

So when you scrutinise all the decisions and effects from each government’s response, what is obvious is that you need the right combination but it is in getting to that point that has proven to be difficult.

Much to learn from Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand

Each country has a different environment – its cultures, peoples, attitudes and peculiarities as a whole – but not many can argue that among the countries that have been successful thus far are Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and New Zealand; successful in keeping the number of infections and deaths low, relative to some different factors of course.

It cannot be denied and disputed that Malaysia took a concerted, multi-agency approach about five weeks too late due to intense politicking which culminated in a change in government from the beginning of March. But despite this multi-agency approach, there have been hiccups from as early as just one day after the MCO was imposed on March 18, with Pahang deciding on operating hours for businesses different from those decided by the federal seat of government in Putrajaya. Thereafter some states did like-wise.

This didn’t surprise many because some states are in the opposition, controlled by the Pakatan Harapan coalition that was in government until end of February but a Perikatan Nasional state also deciding differently from Putrajaya?

More was to follow when Putrajaya decided to relax some restrictions for two weeks beginning May 4 which overlapped MCO4, with some states essentially deciding they were not prepared yet to ease some restrictions. Then the issue of legal jurisdiction was brought up and that appeared to put sense into the state CEOs.

In short, it was simply a question of leadership at the federal level. Honestly, you didn’t think anyone would dare do this during the time Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister twice. Call it a dictatorship or whatever but this 94-year-old sure knew how to rein in any dissident.

After the first MCO, the other three extensions each covered a two-week period but the latest extension is for a month, beyond Hari Raya which is due most likely on May 24. If the situation is improving day by day, it is rather questionable why this latest extension should be for four weeks instead of two but no one is telling us why and Malaysians in general do not have the self-critical attitude to ask too many questions.

Malaysia’s testing regime still quite a distance behind

What is also clear so far is Malaysia’s approach to try and fight this pandemic, specifically how it looks at the screening protocol. Health director-general Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah has repeatedly talked about the targeted approach which he maintains has been a success but while this approach has netted in the positive cases, not testing the wider community more means others who may be carriers may not be detected earlier that they should. The discovery of one cluster after the other in quick succession point to this and more will most likely be detected.

It must also be noted that every expert from all over the world agree that the only way to detect as many carriers as possible is via widespread testing. But of course, to be more successful in the overall context you need the right combo as mentioned above. A daily update on the number of cases, deaths and testing is available at the WHO website. Take a look and make your own conclusions as to where we are.

Noor Hisham has also called the Malaysian approach a proactive one but the decisions Malaysia has taken lean more towards being a reactive, fire-fighting type. How else can you call it when you start talking about wanting to zero in on old folks homes two months after many other countries had known them to be the most vulnerable group? Or decide to test all foreign workers only three weeks after a mini transmission explosion in Kuala Lumpur’s Masjid India and a few weeks after loud alarm bells were heard in Singapore concerning the same category of workers?

Now the Malaysian Medical Association has criticised the policy changes for testing of the workforce before businesses resume operations under the CMCO. MMA president Dr N. Ganabaskaran said the lack of clear-cut guidelines on the testing of the workforce has left business owners, employees and even general practitioners in the country confused and frustrated.

But really, while it’s nice, encouraging and good for the ego to hear people talk about the positives, to get to the bottom of the situation the thing to do is to look inwards and be as honest and self-critical as possible because that’s what being real means.

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About the author

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Aziz Hassan

A journalist since July 1976 with both the English and Malaya press and was with two newspaper groups before The Mole. Does corporate report-writing and translation in his free time. Currently also a contributing weekly rugby columnist for the New Straits Times.