Is the movement control order a lockdown?

We have reached more than 500 Covid-19 cases, and the number keeps climbing.

For many, the air-raid sirens were the quantum leap of 190 new cases detected in a single day followed by a second day of an additional 100-odd cases yesterday.

On Monday, Prime Minister Muhiyiddin Yassin announced a “movement control order” that begins today, which has sweeping measures, such as restricting any form of gathering, as we struggle to keep Malaysia in the late containment phase.

The first question that many are asking is, “What is the late containment phase?” Let me shed some light on this.

For many public health experts, the rapid, exponential rise in the number of new cases denotes a worrying pattern. International predictive models built by experts, and corroborated in real-time country level examples such as in Italy, show that if the increase in the number of infected patients follows the current trend, the number of infected patients will move into the tens of thousands, if not higher, in the upcoming days.

Why is this bad? For any country, there is only a limited number of health resources available at any one point in time. Resources mean the number of health professionals, equipment, hospital beds and such.

Take for example ventilators which are needed for supporting Covid-19 patients who are having severe breathing problems.

At any one time, there are only a fixed number of ventilators in the country; bought and prepared by health authorities based on a predicted population use planning model.

When there is suddenly a huge number of people needing ventilators, there just will not be enough. At that time, who do you choose to ventilate? An old person? A young person? A person who has a better chance of survival?

These are some of the hard, impossible choices that the Italian health authorities are dealing with at this point as their health system is overwhelmed.

We do not want this to happen to us.

The Ministry of Health’s correct strategy up to this point has been “early containment”. In early containment, the strategy is to prevent the virus from spreading as long as possible. This includes detecting cases early, tracing who had been in contact with these cases and isolating all of them from spreading the disease.

This worked well, up to last week perhaps. What changed? Many new cases began popping up, some from among people who had not travelled to originally affected areas or had not been in contact with people who had had the disease.

This now leaves us in the sorry state of having to move into “late containment”. In “late containment”, the strategy is to reduce the peak impact of the virus by slowing its spread. This really means reducing the number who get the infection at the same time.

At this point, how to we do that? Simple. Keep people apart. As far apart as is possible. There are already some who seem to decry the health authorities for “allowing things to get this bad”. That’s rubbish.

If anything, it’s our lack of honesty, transparency and eagerness to flout whatever guidelines or suggestions that the health ministry has put out that has been the problem.

Sometimes I feel Malaysians have become a set of people who want to, nay, love to be put under the sword through harsh draconian laws before they will follow any kind of good social norm.

This is similar to what happened in Italy and we’re hurtling down the same road. Early on in their outbreak some three weeks ago, the Italian government and health authorities put out similar public health warnings asking their population to reduce contact with each other. People didn’t think it was serious enough. The movement of people did not abate.

The result? Today, Italy has the highest number of recorded Covid-19 cases and deaths outside China with more than 1,000 deaths.

Worrying? On all the predictive models that I talked about earlier, the patterns show Malaysia on a similar worrying curve. Is the solution then this movement control order? Is this a lockdown? Is it not a lockdown?

People are confused, and justifiably so.

Let me clarify a little. A lockdown in its most literal sense, means that everything comes to a halt. Under a lockdown, there should be absolutely no movement of people or products across the country; with only perhaps the most critical services functioning.

This would mean a halt to any form of shops and even public transportation. While some say this is one of the best ways to keep the disease under control, the social and economic repercussions could be devastating.

Imagine if shops were not allowed to open, people would begin rioting in the streets (this is really not an exaggeration, see your social media feeds for the toilet paper frenzy yesterday in most of our supermarkets).

It was so long ago that older Malaysians cannot remember “black” areas during the communist emergency where people were shot on sight for moving about during curfew hours.

On the contrary, rather than being a curfew or a lockdown, the movement control order is designed to be a softer, controlled approach to ensuring that the population stays at a safe distance so that the disease does not continue to spread.

By reducing compulsory economic and educational activities such as attending schools, colleges, universities and work – we automatically reduce the chances of transmission of the virus to that many people interacting with one another.

In fact, thanks to our Yang di-Pertuan Agong the possible risk of transmissibility from mass religious gatherings at Muslim places of worship has also been reduced automatically; while other communities have quickly followed suit.

Similar ideas are behind the reason why entertainment venues as well other social congregation events are not allowed for the time being.

The worry, rather, in this movement control order, is that it still leaves a lot to the average Malaysian’s common sense and the hope, as the prime minister said, that we will all play our part in being conscientious citizens.

The government is trying its best to treat us as responsible adults, but are we capable of being so?

Two weeks and a couple of thousand cases will reveal the answer.

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