Beware the virulence of fear

A viral picture (proven to be a manufactured fake) of Chinese “tourists” landing in Langkawi, a video of people eating bat “soup” in Wuhan (proven to be an old video from Palau)… in the past few days Malaysians have been infected by the “virus” of fear, a far more dangerous disease to our social fabric than the risk of the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus at this time.

The first victim of the “fear virus” has been the Malaysian health system, especially the ministry of health (MOH). Since the beginning of the crisis, many have accused the MOH of “not doing things right”. The minister, the director-general of health and the entire apparatus of the MOH have come under fire, accused of

i) hiding the “true” conditions of the cases in Malaysia;

ii) being more concerned with tax dollars from tourism than the health of Malaysians; and

iii) being incompetent in carrying out their jobs.

Though many of the allegations seem like signs of widespread panic, there are hidden hands with a specific agenda who are fanning the flames, driving the hysteria for their own gain. Many senior leaders of the previous administration have been actively criticising and belittling the official Malaysian health sector’s response.

This, after all, is an opportunity to get their licks in and make the current government look bad. Ironically, many of them who were in similar government positions previously would have followed a similar set of responses, as there is a standardised operating procedure in health crises. Thus their insinuation that things are not being run well by the current management seems to be nothing but a cheap political ploy.

If your car breaks down, you depend on the mechanic to repair it, since the mechanic is the technical expert in this field. When the mechanic tells you, “ the drive shaft is gone”, you don’t tell the mechanic to “glue it back together, I’ve seen this being done on a website”.

We grumble about the cost (like any true Malaysian) and let the mechanic do the job that he has spent years being trained to do.

Managing a cross-border communicable disease outbreak is not dissimilar. It requires technical expertise and guess where these experts are? Within the ministry of health. Evidence in terms of international affirmation of our expertise (our 18th in the world ranking from the John Hopkins Global Health Security Index in terms of managing communicable disease outbreaks) has been flushed down the toilet by almost every Ahmad, Ah Kau and Alagesu who have, overnight, become global infectious disease experts.

The pages of social media are filled with “demands” about the actions the MOH should be taking, their information cherry-picked from various websites. As in the case of trusting the mechanic with your car, it is best to let MOH experts carry out the specific crisis management plan which they have conceptualised based on the best expertise this country has to offer, and with input from international colleagues from global organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO).

By second guessing and blindly criticising, we are undermining the trust the public has in the health system, something which will have disastrous long-term consequences in the future. This has to stop.

There is also the disgusting way in which some quarters are using fear-mongering as an excuse to make money. By discrediting the health system and portraying that it is failing, they create distrust and abject fear, again with their specific population being social media users.

Then, unsurprisingly they begin to advertise that “the only safety that you can get is by you taking things into your own hands yourself. Buy Product X. It can boost your immunity and prevent you from getting the coronavirus infection”. Be warned and be aware. Do not become one of those gullible people who succumb to these “snake-oil” sellers seeking to make a quick buck.

The “fear virus” has unfortunately also revealed the ugly face of xenophobia among Malaysians. Calls to kick out visitors from China and even suggestions to jail all Chinese citizens circulate on Facebook; with all government attempts to clarify this being met with cynical resentment. Truth is, international travel impositions are governed by international regulations that we are a party to. Calls to ignore them, shut down borders and keep the Chinese away seem to be tinged with a racial brush at best; and classic xenophobia at worst.

Again, the irony is that the Chinese government has already shut down international travel for its citizens as part of their control measures long before the calls even began to do so in Malaysia. It was their government’s prerogative to do so, as it would be our government’s if things became that bad here.

If things do turn that bad here (we hope and pray that it won’t) one fully expects that those who denounced the government for not shutting down borders will now kick up a fuss when similar rules are applied to them.

Sadly, I even see fellow healthcare professionals exhibiting their xenophobic tendencies. One individual posted on how his family was eating in a restaurant and decided to switch tables as what looked like a group of China tourists had come in and sat down.

Another shared how his entire family ran out of a mall in fear when they saw a group of “Chinese tourists”. In both cases, the healthcare professionals themselves were not wearing any protective masks.

One can perhaps explain away the irrational fear of the general public in calling for the expulsion of Chinese nationals. However, to see similar prejudiced behavior from healthcare professionals is unacceptable.

While the Malaysian health system is trying its best to cope with the disease “curveball” thrown at the nation, the question is not whether the government is doing a good enough job. The question is: are you, as a member of the public, doing yours?

Just a fortnight ago, the MOH was also under fire for allegedly not predicting that we would have a shortage of flu vaccines. But the ministry had adequate stocks because it had done its planning and ensured that there was enough to cover the at-risk population.

Why the shortage then, one may wonder? The seasonal flu vaccine is seasonal. This means that you need to be vaccinated annually. Since not many people were regularly vaccinating, manufacturers did not keep enough stock in-country, a simple case of market economics. However, as the influenza “outbreak” went viral on social media, people rushed out to get vaccines, even though it was nothing more than a yearly seasonal occurrence.

Similarly, before going into a paranoid mode and spreading conspiracy theories on how the coronavirus is a bioengineered weapon (a story already making waves on social media), ask yourself: Are you wearing a face mask when you leave the house? Do you need to be walking around in the shopping mall, especially with your little children at this time? Are you washing your hands? These simple steps may seem trivial and many have belittled them, but they are effective in keeping you safe.

Simple consistent preventive health behaviour, common sense and belief in our professionals is what we need to get us past the outbreak of the “fear virus” as well as the Novel Coronavirus 2019 n-COV outbreak. That, and heartfelt prayer.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.