Friday, June 5

Of social distancing and festivals


Social distancing is impracticable.

MIDWEEK, two important media statements attracted my attention. One, made by the federal government, and the other came from the Sarawak branch of the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA).

At first glance, they were somewhat contradictory. Later, when read together, they made some sense, contradictory in terms but complementary in function. Nothing that we’re not getting used to!

News that only the Prime Minister, the Senior Minister (Security Cluster), and the director general of Health, can make statements on Covid-19 was a bit of a puzzle. It begs the question: What about the State Disaster Management Committee in Sarawak – isn’t this also the authority to issue statements on the same subject (measures to contain the virus)?

Then Dr Morni Abdul Samat, the chairman of the Sarawak branch of the MMA stated (The Borneo Post – May 4) that “the increase in the number of people returning for upcoming festivals could result in the number of Covid-19 cases rising and subsequently overwhelm the state’s healthcare system”. Makes a lot of sense.

Dr Morni further cautioned people “not to return to the state for festivals, if possible, despite the downward trend in Covid-19 … Aside from the risk of inadvertent transmission by returnees to family members and others in society, the four Covid-19 testing laboratories in Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri might not be able to cope should a new wave of cases emerge.” That should knock sense into people.

In other words, social distancing remains the key weapon against the invisible enemy. The active defensive tactic can cut the chain of infection of the Covid-19 pandemic. Any relaxation of it may start a new wave!

Avoiding a crowd of people during the current pandemic of a vicious disease is part of the strategy to contain its spread. In China, we are told, the strategy has worked. Hopefully, it will work here too.

Any relaxation in the enforcement of that strategy must be fully explained to and understood by those who have been subjected to the Movement Control Order since the ‘Ides’ of March. If the breakdown of social distancing is likely to be the Achilles heel in our defence mechanism, why risk it?

No crowd, no festivals

All festivals attract crowds of people. So how does one avoid close proximity in such a setting? We have been steadfastly complying with the MCO’s rulings, including staying at home, and this having all the time in the world to rationalise conflicting public statements. Now we’re wondering if the policymakers, while trying to please everybody, may, in the end, please nobody?

Firmness and consistency necessary 

The government’s decision to allow university students to go home has set a precedent. Anyone living or working outside the state will also ask for leave to go home for the festivals. Within the next couple of months, there are major celebrations coming up in Sarawak, beginning with Aidilfitri or Hari Raya Puasa, followed by Gawai Dayak.

Unless firm measures are in place, there will be a stream of people pouring out of the towns into the villages and longhouses, possibly carrying Covid-19. Everybody may be a carrier of the virus, and a potential transmitter. Hordes of people, using all manner of transportation – buses, express boats, and aeroplanes, all crowded. They are looking forward to enjoying the holidays, but the one having a real holiday will be Corona!

Holiday fun and games and family reunions were normal times in the past, but this year, we are living in abnormal times. If I were a parent having children or relatives outside Kuching, I would tell them to stay where they are, keep indoors, be safe, and keep us elders safe too. Happy days will be here again if everybody observes social distancing. For the time being, communicating via cyberspace is good enough.

Social distancing in the longboat 

In the longhouse setting, social distancing is almost impossible to observe. There, the law applies more in its breach than in its observance. The number of potential offenders, being ignorant of the law, will be huge, and prosecuting them would be a tough job. If found guilty, there won’t be enough cell rooms for all. In the lockup – forget about social distancing. Pay the compound. Have they got enough money or time to look for the money for the payment of the compound?

How do the authorities police the seating arrangement in a longboat where social distancing is mandatory? It’s just not on. Every now and then, people of the longhouse go shopping (ngalu) in the bazaar in one boat. To man a longboat, at least two people are required: at the back, the driver and the pilot (jaga luan), in front. Social distancing is the norm; but on board a longboat, how do the passengers comply with the MCO, law-abiding they may be? Where a longhouse is not connected to bazaar by a motor-able road, the boat is the vehicle and the river is the road.

Abide by the law, heed MMA’s advice

Experts believe, and the rest of us hope, that the social distancing as a strategy can break the chain of the spread of Covid-19. It has worked in China, Korea, and Japan. No reason why it won’t work here. So how does one reconcile the ruling to allow people to not gather in big numbers with the order that relaxes conditions (allowing people to go home to celebrate the coming festivals)?

I have been asked about the ambiguity, more like a conundrum, of the two statements. My answer is that we abide by the government’s ruling because they are in charge, and listen carefully to the MMA because they know what they’re talking about.

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