Why Malaysia may fail the Covid-19 exam

We are done with a week of the movement control order (MCO) and the number of cases and deaths is continuing to climb. Malaysia has never faced something as nefarious as this Covid-19 outbreak, which charts many bitter firsts for us.

For one, this outbreak has given our country a “real-world” examination and it’s not one where the results can be trivially dismissed.

That the Covid-19 outbreak was an “exam” of sorts for a country was alluded to in a CNBC interview with Singapore’s foreign minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. He spoke about how Covid-19 tested a country in three areas: i) its healthcare system; ii) its administrative capabilities; and iii) the social cohesion of its people.

He went on to say that these components were part of a tripod “holding up” the country and that if any one of these components was weak, the country would not hold up well.

How are we performing as a country? Let’s go over it together. Covid-19 tests the strength of our healthcare system through certain clearly visible parameters. The first parameter is whether our public health system has managed to stand up to the challenge of locating, screening, isolating and performing contact tracing of individuals suspected of contracting Covid-19.

The second parameter is whether our clinical management of confirmed patients has been up to par, with patients receiving the specialty care required, while the third is whether we have managed to develop either a treatment for the disease or a vaccine that can protect the uninfected population. The fourth and final parameter is whether we are providing equitable care for the underprivileged segments of the population in terms of locating and treating the disease from groups within them.

The news reports and the numbers speak for themselves. The entire health system has swung into full gear doing all that we can to detect, contain and treat patients.

Even as I write this, new strategies are being worked out to increase our testing capacity, and there are some promising developments including a home-grown vaccine being looked at by the ministry of science and technology. We have even removed (albeit temporarily) the barriers to health access by our migrant and refugee populations and are attempting to provide them Covid-19 tests and treatment with charges waived.

To me, that’s one part of the tripod holding itself up. Critics abound, pointing multiple fingers at all the shortcomings of the health system and its professionals. To them I say, see how we’ve done compared with many nations around us. I think we can hold our heads high knowing that we have done and are continuing to do our best, improving every day.

The second part of the tripod is our administrative capability. The outbreak has required a “whole-of-government” approach with the cooperation of multiple departments under a cohesive, strong leadership. I will not lie. There were quite a few hiccoughs over this in the initial days, especially a fortnight ago. This was perhaps worsened by the change in government.

But the fact that the government was brave enough to declare the MCO and get things moving has been an important signal for the government machinery which has since kicked into gear. Of course, the huge contribution and sacrifice of our security forces in ensuring law and order is maintained amid the chaos cannot be understated.

Credit also needs to be given to the often unacknowledged civil servants from multiple departments who are working hard behind the scenes to ensure that the administrative wheels are greased, enabling Malaysia to have some modicum of function.

Quite a few socio-economic mitigation measures have been introduced, and again, while many complain about it being not good enough, the fact of the matter remains that even these measures need ground-level implementation and buy-in; and civil servants are critical to ensure that this is carried out.

So, the second part of the tripod may have been wobbly at the start, but every day it seems better strengthened and reinforced.

Now comes the third part of the tripod: our social cohesion. While different segments of Malaysia have been moving tirelessly to go above and beyond their job functions to see us through the Covid-19 storm, the same cannot be said of us as a whole.

It reflects badly on us as a society that: i) there are many of us who are at risk of contracting Covid-19 who have yet to step forward to get screened; ii) there are those among us who, while being symptomatic or unsymptomatic, show up at healthcare facilities but then lie about their contact history; and iii) there are those who continue to find every loophole that they can to flout the MCO.

Stop being so selfish. The life and death of others are in our hands. We need to get over this together, and no one can do this alone.

If you had contact, don’t hide at home and continue transmitting the disease to your family and friends. Come forward and get tested. People are dying because of you.

If you do come to the health facility knowing you had contact, don’t lie to the healthcare professionals about it. When you lie, they are not protected and as a result, they get the disease. People are dying because of you.

Stay at home. Practise social distancing. Stop going out. Stop sneaking out to eat at the mamak shop, stop going to exercise in the parks, stop going in droves to the market. Knowingly or unknowingly, you may be transmitting the disease. People are dying because of you.

The third part of the tripod is not upright. We are not holding up our end of the bargain. Without social cohesion, we cannot hope to come out of this in one piece. South Korea and China successfully weathered this because all three parts of the tripod worked. That’s not happening here.

To paraphrase Kennedy, your country is finally asking you what you can do for it. Will you? #dudukrumah

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