Amid foul-ups, the face of Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19 stands tall

Every time I see health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, I feel reassured. The man has been a tower of strength for many Malaysians worried about the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant movement control order (MCO).

He has also been a bulwark against confusion caused by the statements and actions of some ministers and the fast-changing, often unclear directives regarding the MCO.

His is the trusted face of Malaysia’s fight against the coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 which is causing the Covid-19 disease.

The government should be lauded for separating the medical issues from the administrative issues. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin comes on television to lay out the broad measures in the battle against Covid-19, especially the economic measures; Defence Minister Ismail Sabri gives us the details about ground measures related to stopping the spread of the disease; and Dr Noor Hisham gives us the health and medical facts, including the number of deaths, infections and recoveries.

One reason I feel reassured is that a medical man, a professional, is giving the daily briefings on health issues. I am also glad that the health minister or some other minister is not sharing space with him, as that would only confuse matters.

Perhaps the administrators have learned from the somewhat chaotic way the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 press briefings were handled.

In crises, it is best to leave it to the professionals, with politicians laying the policy after discussion with experts in the field.

But not all professionals are competent or comforting or inspire confidence. There are more than a few in the civil service on whom tax-payer money is wasted. Dr Noor Hisham is clearly not one of them.

We can clearly see his competency when measured against that of those implementing non-health related matters, especially some ministers.

Let me quote the lament of Consumers’ Association of Penang president Mohideen Abdul Kader: “In all that we can see, there is a lack of planning with clear guidelines, leaving implementers to decide how they are to interpret the general announcements made by the government, some resulting in embarrassing U-turns.”

It’s true. The government has to buck up in this area. Too many people are suffering because of the incompetency of those behind the directives and those getting it across to the ground implementers such as policemen and agency officials.

There have been reports of raw food going to waste because they can’t be brought to the market as the MCO has broken the food supply chain in many geographical areas. The small farmers who usually supply to the morning markets are the most affected.

It is clear those behind the MCO failed to plan properly for this.

There has been criticism by several experts and the health authorities of the way the Kuala Lumpur City Hall and some other local authorities initially carried out disinfection operations. I read a report which said Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin was mocked by netizens for wearing personal protection equipment, something said to be in short supply and needed by frontliners in the battle against Covid-19, as she participated in one of these exercises.

NGOs and individuals sneered at Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rina Harun for suggesting that work-at-home mothers should “groom as usual”, look neat, and adopt a “Doraemon-like” tone, giggle coyly and not nag when engaging with their husbands. The ministry later apologised.

Rina had earlier been criticised for temporarily closing the Talian Kasih helpline – which serves children, the disabled, and abused women – during the MCO period. Following the criticism, the service was restored.

On the ground, people are comparing her with Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, her predecessor in the previous administration, and find Rina wanting.

Then there was Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa and his indecisiveness over approval for Ramadan bazaars. Finally, he had to backtrack and give in to the health authorities’ “no go”. And Health Minister Dr Adham Baba’s advice to Malaysians to drink warm water to “flush” down the coronavirus was questioned by medical experts.

Also, there has been much criticism about the way violators of the MCO have been handled. We have seen pictures of some of those arrested being herded into trucks in even more close proximity then they would have been if they had been, say, playing football. Groups of them have been handcuffed, chained together and brought to the courts with bodies touching each other, in total disregard for social distancing rules. This seems to be a case of the medicine being worse than the ailment.

More than 5,000 people now have a conviction – not for theft or robbery or defrauding the nation of millions but for staying outdoors during the MCO period. True, they should have followed instructions and stayed indoors but I feel sorry for them because a conviction can cause problems when one wants to apply for a job or visa, and some of those arrested are youths.

If anyone is to be charged for endangering lives, I think it should be those who had been exposed to people who had tested positive or had travelled to countries affected by the disease but knowingly failed to inform the health authorities or did not report for a test when asked to do so.

I have heard from doctors that some people suspected of having Covid-19 who had been told to quarantine themselves at home, after taking the test and before the results were out, had in fact gone out and in the process put other lives in danger. I wonder if any of these people – including those who had attended the tabligh convention and a wedding, where some were infected, but had failed to adhere to the appeal by police to come forward for testing – have been arrested.

However, I acknowledge that these are difficult times and the police are merely trying to enforce the MCO so that the spread of the disease can be checked. I salute each and every policeman who is out on the streets trying to ensure social distancing so that we can beat the virus.

And I appeal to people to cooperate and bear the inconvenience a little longer by staying at home. If we don’t want the authorities to take harsh action, we have to cooperate, for the primary task before the nation is to control the spread of the disease.

We have to acknowledge that the crisis is new not just for us but for other nations too and that there will be a learning curve involved, including for ministers.

And certainly, on the whole, our government and its agencies are doing much better than many developed nations.

But we have to remember that we don’t do as much testing of the public as some other nations and therefore our number of infections may not be accurate. We should not have a false sense of safety or of achievement but should increase our efforts.

In the meantime, here’s a million thanks to the face of the nation’s battle against Covid-19 – Dr Noor Hisham – and his gallant men and women. They have shown the world that we have a relatively good healthcare system in place, and dedicated people to man it.

We are proud of all of you.

I hope that, realising how important the public health sector is, the government in its 2021 Budget will increase the allocation for the health ministry so that more hospitals and clinics can be built, the latest equipment bought and staff strength increased.

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