Friday, July 10

Coves of solidarity

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THE nationwide movement control order has now been extended to April 14, as countries worldwide escalate action to control Covid-19. A spectrum of partial to complete lockdowns have taken effect across the globe – with the common mantra of “stay home, maintain social distance, go out only if necessary” – while scientists collaborate in unprecedented ways, and public policy experts evaluate the impact of decisions made by governments to better inform others.

In terms of flattening the epidemic curve, one widely-agreed objective is to massively expand testing, with the Ministry of Health aiming to test 16,500 daily by next week, following the example of South Korea. Many who forwarded me the BBC interview with its Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha were impressed by her fluency and level-headedness, but I equally admired her argument that it was democracy, transparency, and science that enabled them to flatten their curve, showing that countries need not regress into authoritarianism to defeat the virus.

Trust in government institutions by the general public of course helps a great deal in ensuring compliance, and thankfully Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has won wide praise for his leadership, straddling a political transition, before doctors debunked the medical advice of his new minister. (In the USA, the leadership of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is being contrasted against that of the President, whose statements have had to be clarified by White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr Anthony Fauci.)

Although petty politicking should be avoided during a crisis, it is vital that political leaders make decisions based on evidence, scientific projections, and resources available. There have been many contributions to this process, with my colleagues at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) recommending the need to support informal and low income self-employed workers, extend exemptions across the supply chain to sustain essential goods and services, among others (see ideas.org.my).

Eminent citizens from different sectors are urging the government to create a special fund using disposals from 1MDB assets to fight Covid-19 and render financial help to those affected. The Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) calls for “an extraordinary crisis budget comparable to the projected income losses of RM95 billion”, while Research for Social Advancement (Refsa) advocates an additional RM1,000 per month for recipients of the Cost of Living Aid (BSH).

An open letter to the PM penned by Dr Nungsari Ahmad Radhi, Hamdan Abdul Majeed, and Dr Muhammad Abdul Khalid lists priorities in managing the pandemic, the affected, and the economy, noting that “speed of implementation is key, and should be decentralised”; indeed, state governments are already trying to respond to local needs. Writing in support of the letter, Ideas director and Malaysian Economic Association past president Datuk R Thillainathan suggests, among other things, the supervision of prices, the stockpile of essential goods and services, and encouraging businesses to meet the changes in demand during the crisis.

These are all valuable contributions that I hope the government is seriously considering, so that the more extensive stimulus package to be announced on March 30 – complementing Bank Negara’s measures to ease loan and credit card repayments – will further address the anxious and angry sentiments expressed on social media thus far (complete with sarcastic memes).

Every day there are glimmers of hope, with news that vaccines are intensely being trialled, or that cheaper, faster test kits are being developed, or that easy-to-assemble ventilators have been invented, while efforts are being made to accelerate the manufacture and distribution of masks and gloves (of which Malaysia is the largest producer). Graphs showing that our trajectory is so far avoiding the steep rises of Italy, Spain, and now New York are good to look at, but the pressure on our front liners remains intense and shows no signs of abating for now.

The voluntary efforts of Malaysians to assist all those working for our health, security, and sustenance are truly amazing – as are those who are still feeding and caring for those who do not have access to food and shelter.

Unfortunately, even in these times, there are scammers seeking to exploit the situation, by impersonating others to solicit ‘donations’, or even posing as police officers at fake roadblocks. In the pits of despicability they join those who still seek political gain at every opportunity, who attribute false statements to discredit others, who invoke racism or purported ‘sin’ in apportioning blame for the virus, and who endanger other people’s lives by concealing their contacts or symptoms.

But when they are exposed, the best of Malaysia rallies together, condemning such actions and subsequently showing powerful examples of solidarity that will hopefully last well beyond April 14.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.