THE title to this piece is mortifying. It is meant to be. Malaysia has in the past three months descended into a tragic public health pit.As this is written, we have overtaken China in the number of Covid-19 infections, if you can believe either country. China, with a population nearing 1.5 billion, where it all started.The brutal lockdown that we all endured in March, April and through to May was upon the premise of a fictional concern about the spread and effect of the disease.At that time, sticking your head out for a run to the supermarket was a spine-tingling affair. The citizens of Malaysia took this seriously.Doctors, nurses, hospital attendants, Grab drivers, people working in pharmacies, supermarkets and markets and many others were persons with profiles of courage, braving the contagion to keep us fed and well, as were those keeping vital supply lines open.Many of them were not even of our land, but migrant workers forced to endure these dangers so as to be able to provide for their families abroad.Interestingly many of this category of people have been recognised by the UK government in the queen’s new year’s honours list. Might we?Spinning slowly away from that, in the course of that initial lockdown, what kept Malaysians going were a couple of things.Tuning in to director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s daily press conference. He was the reason for the emergence from our bunkers.Information from him at the time was precise and plentiful enough for dissection for that day and through to his next appearance.Between March and May 2020, he was firm in resolve and had about him, an elegance and grace that blesses only true leaders.He had the ability above all to ensure that those about him were feted, rather than him. While that was his trademark, there was no doubting that he was the brains behind the task and there was no greater mark of that, than the fact that he was taken by ministers, to the palace, in that craven effort by the government to impose an emergency.Noor Hisham projected that public health was in command, not a government formed by the quick sands of parliamentary shanking.All we heard from that branch of government was that this immediate truncheon on life was required to allow us to return to normal existence once the scourge had been brought under control.RM2.4 billion, we were reminded often enough, was the daily cost of this. To and by whom this cost was paid must, of course, figure later.Jobs were lost, businesses succumbed. One of the pillars of our urban society, the migrant community, became predictably the victim of that expected squeeze on the economy.Unfairly, they also became the target of resentment, being identified as those being riddled with, and the cause of the spread of the disease, while Malaysians lost jobs.It was, in other words, an age-old lament with the migrant as the target.Who can forget the feral atmosphere going into supermarkets in March, April and May 2020?A worker bringing out fresh cabbage being nigh on assaulted for the produce by plastic gloved and masked shoppers.The glances at members of your local community, thinking were they carriers of this deadly virus? Would they pinch the last pack of toilet roll?Noor Hisham reduced us to that, and quite correctly. Science over decades supported that theory.Legislation in Malaysia in the form of the infectious diseases act foresaw that. SARS, MERS, swine flu had prepared Malaysia in a way few Western countries could conceive.We accepted the sacrifice to our lives, our children’s lives and our financial futures.It paid off. By July, Malaysia was reporting largely imported cases in single digits.A gloom had been lifted from over the nation, but it was not just the ferocity of the lockdown, with the sight of barbed wire surrounding communities that brought us there.It was critically the decision of the government to lock down our borders before anyone in Europe or North America had even conceived it.Anyone coming in had to quarantine. As it turned out of course, some of that was done in typical Malaysian style. Nevertheless, it worked by and large.By early July, children were back in schools and businesses were cautiously opening. We were told that this would be gradual and while some signposts were clear, as regards mass gatherings, there was more than enough confusion for many businesses.The term ‘SOP’ became part of the vocabulary, without one damn thing being standard. Yes, we could and should have expected more, but we muddled through.Which brings us to the moment, requiring a pivot to consider two points. The first is to ask what the government actually provided financially, to blunt the effect of that initial shut down.There were wage subsidies of between RM600 and RM1,200, and importantly the moratorium on repayment of loans for six months. Unimaginative but helpful and we sucked it up. The hurt I mean.In Singapore, they too endured a version of the lockdown, called electro-quizzically the “circuit breaker”, but the financial package that Singapore offered was singularly shaming to us in Malaysia.As an example, businesses initially received up to a 75% wage subsidy, which included foreign workers.Other critical sectors attracted immediate expressions of government support. Singapore Airlines was immediately earmarked for US$10 billion (RM40.2 billion).Everyone, Singaporean or foreigner, received care packages with masks and food on a regular basis. This, citizens and residents would have thought, is for what we are paying up to 22% of our income in taxes. Our insurance for the bad day.Not so us. While Malaysia’s latest budget can provide for RM11.7 billion for the Prime Minister’s Department (and let us remember he has 35 ministers who are supposed to be doing the real work and have their own budgets) and lamentably having all the natural resources, we have just not been able to provide any meaningful financial assistance, barring the usual culturally unsophisticated handout or allowing EPF withdrawals.In other words, our government’s solution was to draw on your own retirement savings.What is striking in the success of Singapore, Australia, New Zealand has been the dovetailing of financial support and lockdowns.They say, we shut you down, pay you and then within weeks you are back to normal life. That is the dictum.In Hong Kong and Taiwan, it has been the use of technology and manufacturing excellence as well, but in both examples, it has been the exercise of manic discipline and the central government’s money to carry you through.Back home, while Australia and New Zealand were setting up full stadiums to watch international rugby, August brought dark portents to Malaysia.A power grab for political office in Sabah and its resulting backlash, began a spiral into sickness and death.As Sabah went to the polls, it became obvious that case numbers were rising there. A simple and effective response would have been to close borders, but even to us laymen, it was clear that politics was at play.Politics determined the infection’s ravaging hold in Sabah in the heat of a campaign and then its purchase of free passage on aircraft to come to the peninsula. With politicians too.The wish of many Malaysians upon all parties involved in that political exercise will be unsurprising. Paraphrasing the character Mercutio from the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, it can be expressed thus: “A plague upon all your houses”.It was in the course of September as numbers in Sabah exploded and healthcare became strained, that a change overtook Noor Hisham.He had won awards for his work, deservedly, but in September, he said something approximating “we should not look to place blame”.This as the Sabah elections brought waves of the disease to the peninsula. Well, I for one do blame. He was our guardian of public health. He just took his first and irreversible political step.It continued into October, as numbers climbed. Any fool following this pandemic since its outbreak at the beginning of the year could have predicted that. It did not need a public health expert.It grew. It swelled. Earlier this week, with cases surging at between 1,000 and 2,300 per day, Noor Hisham finally gave in.He said that the hospitals were overwhelmed and that if you were positive but asymptomatic, you should self-quarantine.This broke the central tenet of his entire approach to public health he was so of proud in March: if you are positive, you are immediately removed to hospital for treatment and quarantine. It is the white flag.Picture that message against what we have been hearing from the government. Nothing of course from Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and little more than statistics from Noor Hisham.Yet, as numbers climb, we have opened other areas of social life and allowed interstate travel.It is welcome as personal freedom, but is it not prophetically dangerous? The prime minister, responsibly, at this point must surely have said we will shut the country down.Instead, it has been the same silence. One that says that we do not have that second tail in the dove, the money to do that. Malaysia. Broke.Aside from that, anecdotal stories in the dailies have supported a complete breakdown in our healthcare system: district health offices in March that were on your doorstep within 24 hours, cannot even answer calls.For my part, I can say that there are cases of people nearby who have been tested positive. I shudder to think I may be next.New Year’s Eve 2020. We have hit our highest ever tally of new cases at 2,525. Our testing rate of 88.09 per 1,000 (assessed by the University of Oxford Martin School) pales in comparison with Singapore with a rate of 826 per 1,000.It means our 2,525 cases on New Year’s Eve is in fact substantially higher. Community spread is entrenched. We are devolving and have no strategy or message for Malaysians as to what is to come.While our neighbours in Singapore began their vaccinations two days ago, we are confronted with the usual opacity in government procurement and deployment on the most important vehicle that can deliver us from this fearful existence.Tragically we are also confronted with silence as to what that strategy is.Pulling those threads together leads to an inevitable conclusion: there is no strategy at present from political leaders to deal with public health.They have buried their heads in the sands or coldly calculated that sand is where it is best to have their heads buried.In doing so, they have gambled with our lives and the bet is this: that the first batch of vaccines will arrive before our system is swamped.Why? They are more concerned with politics, than the welfare of their people. This must of course be upon a calculation that Malaysians both rural and urban are stupid.As they were in GE 14? Shuffle that deck, I say.In a return to how cards have always been dealt in Malaysia, can I end by asking this: who do you think will get the first doses of the vaccine in Malaysia? My imagination does not need to leap far, especially if the damn thing works. – January 1, 2021.* Gopal Sreenevasan reads The Malaysian Insight. * This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.
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