Covid-19? How quickly we forget

As the number of new Covid-19 cases comes down, with almost no new deaths reported, Malaysians are starting to get more than a little lax. That has always been our habit and, pandemic or not, now that the initial fear seems to have settled, our “tidak apa” attitude is beginning to kick in.

I watched in horror outside a restaurant the other day when a customer berated a poor worker who was at his wits’ end. The restaurant staff was merely trying to ensure the customer complied with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) before she went in to dine, that is, to write her name, take her temperature and sanitise her hands. In fact, since the restaurant had set up a wash basin at the entrance, the customer was even offered the option of washing her hands with soap and water.

Unfortunately, the customer didn’t take kindly to being asked to hand sanitise and shouted at the top of her voice: “You know, I am free of Covid, right? Likely you only have Covid lah! You all are the dirty fellows, why are you asking us to clean our hands?”

Leaving aside the blatant xenophobia (which definitely merits a separate discussion), the immediate thought running through my head was: “My God, how quickly we forget!”

Just weeks ago, people were so scared to even step out of their houses. Some went to extremes to even “protect” themselves by wearing gloves when they went outside.

Now, however, they seem to be trying hard to undo the good work of our healthcare professionals who had persevered to finally gain a brief respite from the pandemic.

A long time ago, I remember one of our “talking heads” remark in response to the Highland Towers condominium tragedy that “in Malaysia, people always kick up a fuss for 30 days. After that, everyone forgets and things go back to exactly how they were”.

That statement continues to haunt me today; witness the report that a number of people had flouted the SOPs to organise a wedding at a place of worship.

Our healthcare professionals had succeeded in contact tracing after patients had tested positive and isolated clusters so they would not infect others. Yet, when they ask us to write our names and phone numbers when we enter a place to dine or to shop, we identify ourselves as Batman or Superman and provide fictional phone numbers. If someone with Covid-19 had patronised these establishments, how are we to do contact tracing?

Why am I so stressed? The World Health Organization is already warning of a second wave of Covid-19 infections. Countries like South Korea are also seeing a rise in the number of cases, signalling an ongoing increase in community transmissions.

Let’s get things straight. Covid-19 is not going to go away with the end of the conditional movement control order. In fact, it’s not even going to go away the day we get a successful working vaccine or an effective cure. We will need months, even years, to scale up the treatment or vaccines to ensure everyone is covered for us to become unconcerned about Covid-19.

What will keep the disease at bay as we return to full capacity are the tested, effective public health measures implemented since the start of the outbreak. Increasingly, this will be true as we suspend the culture of shaking hands or hugging; continue to wash or sanitise our hands; keep our distance as we queue for anything; wear masks where necessary; leave our names and contact details where required; and keep a personal log of where we go and who we meet.

These are the life-changing behavioural changes that we must adopt. But they need to come from within; they need to become habitual, second nature even. Currently, most of us are trying to “sneak by”’ and not do it if someone is not looking or if we think we won’t get caught. Why hand sanitise if someone is not watching? Why social distance if no one is going to force me? Even worse, if I am not going to get punished or fined by the authorities, why should I even bother with keeping to the rules?

Bear in mind that all these “social policing” and rules are to keep us safe, not to prevent us from getting fined, thrown in jail, or shamed in the media. It’s to prevent us from getting infected and dying from this deadly disease. How quickly we forget.

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

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