Our endemic attitudes causing an epidemic

Two months ago, not many people knew the words “endemic” or “epidemic”.

Since then, because of the Covid-19 outbreak, understanding of these epidemiological terms has blown up almost overnight, judging from how these terms are being used on social media.

Which is why I am comfortable using these terms in this article even if not in the absolute context of communicable diseases.

Not many people realise that the terms “endemic” and “epidemic” have already been co-opted into daily use and are not restricted to only a medical or infectious disease sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines endemic as referring to a disease or condition regularly found among particular people in a certain area.

In the Malaysian health context, a “tidak apa” (couldn’t care less) attitude is endemic among Malaysians. This attitude can be seen across the full spectrum of our lives, from the way we nonchalantly chuck plastic waste out of moving cars, to double-parking or cutting queues everywhere.

The endemicity of this “tidak apa” attitude has a huge impact on our society, and nowhere is this more deadly than in the area of road traffic accidents (RTAs).

Why are health people concerned about RTAs? Well, people may not realise this, but road traffic accidents are a non-communicable disease.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, traffic accidents are the fourth highest cause of death and disability in Malaysia.

Since one of the most important parts of a health expert’s job description is to keep people alive and well, we definitely have a stake in ensuring that things be done to bring down the number of RTAs, especially the numbers of deaths and disabilities caused by them.

Aren’t accidents unavoidable? By its very nature, Oxford defines “accident” as “an event happening by chance without apparent or deliberate cause”. This may be true of some accidents, but not all.

RTAs in Malaysia are not accidents that happen without any rhyme or reason.

In fact, one of the factors fuelling RTAs in Malaysia is drink-driving.

In recent days, the numbers of drink-driving cases seem to have mushroomed. Just two days ago, for example, the news reported two separate horrific incidents connected to drink-driving occurring on the same day!

In the first accident, a driver believed to intoxicated killed one motorist and injured five others when he drove against traffic while in the second, another individual believed to be drunk ran into a police car.

The issue of drink-driving and the lives that it has claimed has even gained enough political traction that various ministers, including most recently the minister of finance, have commented that the government is considering a maximum 20-year jail sentence and a fine of RM100 000 for drivers guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Stiffer sentences are welcome and indeed have been long overdue for drink-driving, but as with most other health issues, there is a plethora of other correlated issues which must be addressed in tandem with increasing punitive punishment against drunk drivers.

This comes back to “endemicity” of our attitudes.

A large portion of drunk drivers seem to be those attempting to leave bars or restaurants, where alcohol is served, or drunk and attempting to drive home.

These drivers are mostly coming from social gatherings in which there is at least one other person present. Simply ensuring that your colleague or friend does not drive home in a condition of inebriation is not such a difficult thing to do.

Yet no one cares enough to ensure that the inebriated person gets a lift home, or hail a ride for them to get home. This is an endemic attitude.

Even more sadly, you actually get more than one person discussing how to circumvent the law in their effort to drive home having consumed more than any safe amount of alcohol.

“Don’t use that road ah, got police roadblock one you know” is a common parting phrase outside many a bar in the capital (highly similar to how we check Waze when driving to see where the hidden police are).

We try our best to try to circumvent or escape from the law, not knowing that the law has been put in place to ensure both your safety and the safety of other innocent bystanders. This is an endemic attitude.

Interestingly, Malaysians when abroad are fearful enough of the law in other countries that you rarely seem them flouting such regulations when they abroad.

Take the UK for example. You would almost never see someone who has had the odd drink or two even thinking about driving home. It would have never even crossed their mind.

We can’t say the same thing of us here. This is our endemic attitude, and it’s killing us and our loved ones.

Many are unhappy with the government’s call to increase sentencing. They’re saying that enforcement has to be tightened. I agree. But even when enforcement is tightened, people attempt to pay their way out of the problem and in some cases, they succeed. Both payer and receiver are at fault, and this is yet another “endemic” attitude.

The entire nation continues to be gripped by the fear of the Covid-19 epidemic, yet we remain unperturbed by the fact that more than 130 people died from road-traffic accidents in the same week as the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Aren’t these RTA deaths not indicative of an epidemic?

Oxford defines an epidemic as “… a widespread occurrence of an undesirable phenomenon”.

Going by that definition, the widespread rate of fatal RTAs are an epidemic, and they’re being caused by our own endemic attitudes.

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