39 million cases. 1 million deaths. Counting and underrepresented. A moment for all the lives we have lost due to our lack of preparedness and ignorance.
The novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China has left economies bleeding and people losing their loved ones in the worst pandemic in over 100 years. The severity of the disease along with how easy it gets transmitted has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 12, 2020.
COVID-19 Travel Regulations Map. Source: IATA, 15 Oct 2020
Malaysia recorded its first case on January 24th, 2020. Following a rise in cases and difficulty tracking them, the Malaysian government imposed a Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18th. Measures were strict, including prohibition of mass gatherings, closure of all schools, border restrictions, quarantine protocols, and shutting down all but essential businesses. And they worked.
Daily cases in Malaysia (7-day moving average). Source: Worldometers, 04 Oct 2020.
Looking at the figure above, daily cases continued to rise for a few weeks after the implementation of MCO. Then, the curve flattens deep into the Recovery MCO period which took effect on June 10th. With slightly over 18,000 cases as of Oct 15, Malaysia fared far better than Singapore (58,000 cases) and South Korea (25,000 cases), two countries widely hailed for their efforts and success in containing the virus’s spread. And for good reasons.
We implemented a lockdown early, expanded testing services, and created our own contact tracing app earlier than many Western countries. We sheltered our homeless (now more than ever because of business closures), giving food and healthcare and making sure they have a home during MCO. There was strong trust in public health officials amongst Malaysians. The director-general of the Ministry of Health, Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Dr Hisham Abdullah, gave daily updates on Twitter and Facebook late into the night even when he grew visibly tired. He has even been compared to Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease official by Chinese state media CGTN.
Even during a political disarray and a government change, the specifics of healthcare was entrusted to the MOH rather than government entities, allowing for independence from politics. Even with our ongoing brain drain, the lack of infrastructure, and slumping oil prices, we were able to flatten the first curve without authoritarianism controls such as ones employed in China. And that’s not all.
Less than 10 days after the beginning of MCO, Bank Negara Malaysia announced a 6-month moratorium on loan repayments from April 1st. With minimal criteria and no application needed, this deferment applied to a lot of contracts and has helped relieve the burden of individuals and businesses whose income has been affected, especially low- and middle-income groups. Big banks did lose profits, but the additional cash was returned to the economy through restaurants and other sectors still open, providing the right platform for our nation to recover from the worst global recession since the Second World War.
And we were able to pass not one, not two, but four stimulus packages with a fifth one announced, all RM 72 billion in total according to the IMF. Measures included were cash transfers to low-income households, grants for SMEs, wage subsidies scheme, and increased health spending. Even the US could not pass two packages without the president bypassing Congress deliberations. The full effects of these stimulus packages and whether they are strong enough to cushion the economy’s recession are yet to be seen until at least next year. But even with the lack of future data, it seems as of now we are doing well.
Now let us talk about what we have done wrong. You may remember the highly controversial report by Al Jazeera on YouTube that detailed how Malaysia’s migrant workers have been our unfortunate victims. According to the report, immigration officials have rounded up illegal foreign workers in the name of public health. Any identified areas with a high concentration of cases, the most prominent locations holding mainly foreign workers, are locked up behind barbed wire and cordoned by the military under an Enhanced MCO. Across Kuala Lumpur, people are fingerprinted, tested, and checked for valid documents. Those without are chained and taken away. A public promise by the Minister of Defence that documents will not be checked during testing felt like a betrayal when officials came knocking and rounding up undocumented residents.
Overcrowded in police trucks and detention centres, cases flared in those centres amongst the detainees. The documentary host, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was deported for criticising the Malaysian government and the Al Jazeera office in KL was raided. All these events call into question the way we treat our migrant workers, especially undocumented ones. There is no question that it is within the government’s rights to detain undocumented foreigners, but we must rethink our priorities in a pandemic when we need their cooperation to find infection clusters. Migrants and refugees often live in cramped spaces, with limited rights and aid. They want to trust us but, how could they? It is a shame we treated them the way they were, and it is a shame for us to not yet sign the UN Refugee Convention. Some of these workers and refugees did not have a choice, and yet we failed them.
The numbers of the coronavirus story of Malaysia may paint our country’s story as one of the world’s early victories, how a small nation managed to stave off the first wave of COVID-19. But our story has also revealed how we failed in our humanity to take care of those who needed our help. As we end this year, we will have to re-evaluate where we stand in the 4th Challenge of Wawasan 2020 – establishing a fully moral and ethical society.
The end is still far from present. A far worse second wave is coming and somehow, with a crippled logistics network, we will need to vaccinate a great majority of the population for this virus to die out. And it is not when the first person gets vaccinated that matters, but rather when the last and least priority persons get it – students, the young and the healthy.