Time for a Covid reset

A year ago, I published my book “The Great Reset” in a modest attempt to explain how the once-in-a-century Covid-19 crisis is going to reset our politics, the economy and healthcare system. However, the powers-that-be didn’t bother to learn much from the 18-month Covid crisis that erupted since late January 2020. This is why I believe Malaysia needs a reset in our approach towards the Covid crisis now.

On 12 January 2021 when the government declared emergency, there were 141,533 accumulated cases with 559 deaths. As of 5 July, when this piece was written, there were already 785,039 accumulated cases and 5,574 deaths.

We need to live with Covid-19 as the virus won’t go away in the foreseeable future, yet we cannot lock down forever as secondary health concerns such as mental health as well as the shutting down of the economy would pose even greater risks.

These are the five things that we should do and do it fast.

1) Massive Testing

After almost a year and a half, with the rapid antigen tests becoming so much more accurate, the Health Director-General Tan Sri Noor Hisham Abdullah is still very much stuck with PCR tests. While PCR test is certainly the gold standard and most accurate, shockingly, Malaysia only managed to test around 60,000 people each day, with a positivity rate of more than 9 percent towards the end of June.

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that less tests means less cases, and that things will be better. The public know how to read positivity rate. More importantly, the virus won’t simply go away.

By having more tests, we can have a better picture of the situation and manage it better. The idea that we could lock everyone at home and hope the virus would die doesn’t work anymore. There are now multiple factors such as Covid fatigue among the population and the need to keep many sectors open.

In Selangor, the state government’s Covid taskforce has done good by advocating “Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support” approach for the past few months.

In Johor, I am glad and grateful that Tunku Mahkota Johor, Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, has decreed the state government to move away from a permanent lockdown approach, which causes emotional and mental stresses and destroys the economy, to one that co-exists with the virus through massive number of tests. The Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad has committed to carry out the TMJ’s decree, which is a huge step ahead of the rather dogmatic approach of the federal government.

We must bring PCR test numbers to 100,000 per day, if not 150,000. At the same time, we must expand dramatically the number of rapid antigen tests administered throughout the nation, bringing the daily total number of tests to 300,000 or more.

We should now discuss and debate about how to re-open factories and workplaces through massive use of rapid antigen tests and self-testing kits. For example, if all factories and workplaces are required to test their workers thrice a week with rapid antigen tests, which costs less than USD2 per set in bulk buying, I am quite sure this is a better option than locking down indefinitely. In the near future, we can attend meetings and events with simple tests such as breath tests.

2) Vaccination

The Malaysian government was slow in procuring and rolling out vaccination. Be that as it may, as Khairy Jamaluddin had indicated, we expect more doses of vaccines to arrive from now on. The months of July and August will be crucial in ensuring as many people as possible to be vaccinated. We need to ramp up the numbers and capacities of PPV, the vaccine centres. We must encourage more Malaysians to register. At the same time, we must move towards walk-in vaccination without registration for the elderly as soon as our capacities are ramped up.

We should also mobilise the whole-of-society to roll out vaccination and to battle disinformation by anti-vaxxers. Vaccine is the most important weapon at our disposal against Covid-19 and we must not fail in this test.

3) Be kinder and empathetic

It’s a tough time and probably the toughest in many decades, and the suffering is real. I urge those in authorities – whether at the federal, state, or local levels, especially the police and other enforcement agencies – to be kind and empathetic. Those in powers at all levels should see themselves at the frontline helping Malaysians and whoever in need in this dire time. They should not focus on punitive measures.

In this context, the Selangor Police Chief Comm Datuk Arjunaidi Mohamed is in tune with the mood of the time by telling his officers to help those who hoist white flag, and not see them as troublemakers. The white flag campaign is a clear sign that people are fast losing hope and desperate for help. I fear social unrest if we don’t handle the collective despair tactfully.

To avoid further outbreak, prisoners and refugees must be vaccinated too. If Home Minister Dato’ Seri Hamzah Zainuddin and the Immigration Department continue to threaten to arrest the refugees and undocumented migrants, the least likely they would voluntarily come out for vaccination. The consequence is that Malaysia would less likely achieve herd immunity. There is also an urgent need to deal with prison overcrowding which has become the source of many episodes of prison Covid clusters.

4) Whole-of-government and whole-of-society mobilisation

The left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-hand-is-doing is a reflection of the Perikatan Nasional government. The Azmin Ali versus Ismail Sabri petty fight, backdoor-frontdoor fight, etc are distractions in our battles against Covid-19.

The Health Ministry must cease being the silo and dominant entity. It should instead be one of the connected and coherent parts of a whole-of-government approach. All ministries should negotiate and coordinate before reaching the microphone to announce the government’s decisions.

The public is not interested in minsters’ ego trip or bureaucratic turf wars between the Ministry of International Trade and Industry versus the Majlis Keselamatan Negara (National Security Council). They only want to know the government’s decisions for the population.

The federal government needs to learn to see the states as partners, and not enemies. The Health Ministry’s decision not to share granular Covid data with the Selangor state government is regrettable. The tendency of MKN and the senior minister for security Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob to ignore the states is unfortunate and unnecessary. The states should be empowered to decide on lockdowns and many other Covid-related decisions, and not left to pick up from arbitrary decisions of the federal government.

The private clinics and private hospitals should have been an integral part of Malaysia’s Covid-19 fight since March 2020. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for the health ministry to dominate. It’s time to change this.

The nation must also bring opinion leaders at the community level such as teachers, imam, priests, etc to counter disinformation and to lead their students and congregations to register for vaccination and to follow SOP. Their inclusion will help build a collective sense of community and trust in time of crisis.

5) From foodbank to job bank

Jobs need to be at the centre of our discourse.

The bakul makanan or food baskets given to those in need are crucial and very helpful in times of need. But welfare must be complimented with jobfare. The long-term way out of the health and economic crisis is through the availability of dignified jobs for those who have lost theirs during the crisis.

Many sectors have collapsed since the pandemic, especially aviation, tourism, hospitality and retail industries. Many companies in other sectors have also folded and thus many have lost their jobs.

The government must lead in creating jobs, followed by the GLCs and private sectors. If the government at all levels – federal, state and local – commit some financial resources into creating as many RM100 per day temporary jobs, we would be able to help many low- and middle-income families to tie over.

We need a lot of contact tracers to fight Covid-19. We need many more volunteers at the vaccine centres. We could also hire many workers to help clean up and beautify the cities for the benefit of all. We must try to retrofit buildings to improve ventilation so to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. This would require many workers nationally. Likewise, retrofitting buildings with green technologies such as solar and energy saving devices will help Malaysia to deal with climate change.

The key is to provide jobs and to go beyond just food baskets.

Conclusion

Malaysia needs a Covid reset badly. We must not allow the situation to deteriorate further. We must get out of dogmatic thinking, right now.

We need massive testing, ramped-up vaccination, a kinder and empathetic state, a total mobilisation and more provision of jobs at the lower levels to help millions to tie over.

A genius once said, we can’t be doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. We change for the better and we must act now to improve the situation.

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