Sunday, June 13

Clear and present danger

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A health worker (right) uses a swab to collect a sample for Covid-19 coronavirus testing from a woman in Gombak on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on April 22, 2020. – AFP file photo

In reference to Covid-19 Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said “we are at war …” Indeed, we are at war. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, who wrote a treatise on the subject, said, “know the enemy, know yourself, a hundred battles, a hundred victories.” This is indeed a sound reminder from the Master. However, it appears that we are not aware of this advice. It seems we are under the illusion that the enemy is just the virus. But this enemy has many allies which perhaps we have not paid enough attention to.

Who or what are these allies of Covid-19? William Shakespeare through Hamlet said, “Frailty thy name is woman.” In this more politically correct age we should say, “Frailty, thy name is humans.” Yes, humans and all his follies of selfishness, apathy, stubbornness, indiscipline, misguided beliefs, to name just a few, are the friends of Covid and are our enemies.

To fight the war the government declared an array of interdictions. These are the MCOs and their siblings like RMCO, EMCO, CMCO, TEMCO, AEMCO, each with its own SOP. Do not ask what the acronyms mean but suffice to say that they all boil down to wear a mask at all times, keep social distance, avoid crowded places.

I am afraid these rules, whatever fanciful names we call them, are generally to no avail. To follow the rules is really a “bridge too far for Malaysians”. We have many festivals when we carouse with our friends and families, we love markets, we like to hang out with kakis at Kopitiam, chinwagging over noddle, nasi lemak, etc. We find masks a nuisance as they interfere with our favourite pastime, eating. Incidentally, masks also accentuate one of the uncivil habits that are borne out of the attitude of treating the world as a rubbish dump. A friend went for a walk in his neighbourhood, and he decided to pick the discarded rubbish. Just in this one outing, he gathered a big pile of a few hundred discarded masks.

On top of those of these less than desirable attitudes we also have the problem of misguided belief. Sure, Malaysia is a religious country. We have the benefit of being guided by all the major religions, However, some believe that their God will take care of everything and thus they feel they do not have to follow the edicts instituted to combat the deadly disease that is Covid. I have a friend who believes that her place of worship is a haven from earthy disease. “My God will protect me and give me immunity.” She declared defiantly.

I think I should send her and her ilk an excerpt of the speech of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the President of Uganda who said, “God is busy also. He has got the whole world to look after. He cannot be here just in Uganda looking after idiots (who fail to follow instructions) … He has given us enough information on the coronavirus for us to look after ourselves.” And I say “Amen” to that.

So, we have a recalcitrant population. Well, you might say that is only a small percentage. Unfortunately, like the proverbial bad apple. A single one can spoil the whole barrel. One Covid positive person could very well infect dozens and them, in turn, radiate out to the whole community. Here, I feel that authorities have failed to understand some of the key strategies of war. Sun Tsu wrote a whole chapter on Intelligence and weapons. In the context of this war against Covid, it is important that we have information of where is the threat, to recognise the danger and the magnitude of the task. I am talking about the Swab test.

Here I must say I hate to say it, but Donald Trump was right when he said, “You know why we have so many [coronavirus]case numbers? Because we do more testing than any country in the world …”

We never make serious attempt to test as many people as possible. So, we never knew where the threat is. This is like sticking one’s head in the sand and we do not know where our enemies are. In the US and most countries, swab test is free but not quite here. There is no attempt to encourage the population to go for the test. It is certainly not free for non-Malaysians. Given the fact that we have a big number of foreign workers, this is a serious oversight.

I had to do a test at one of the private hospitals and it cost RM300. While I was doing the test, I met an employer who brought 10 foreign workers for the procedure. He was lamenting his financial setback. He prayed that none of his workers would be tested positive because if so, he would have to bear the cost to quarantine them at the designated centre.

A few months ago, the Police mobilised a hunt for four Indonesian women domestic workers who were tested positive for Covid-19. They fled the country, via a circuitous route from Sibu to Serian and then trekked all the way to Kalimantan using the using a “jalan tikus” (illegal border tracks). When we work out the amount of money these poor women had to fork out if they were to be quarantine one can understand why they fled.

So, we never really know the magnitude of the threat. Just not long ago we were rather smug at our assumed success. I remember our Director-General of Health, Dr. Noor Hisham, was lauded and given accolades, both nationally and internationally, for the success in the war. It was a premature celebration. It reminded me of the movie, Jaws. Cue music – “tuhum, tuhum, tuhum”, then the caption “just when you think it is safe to enter the water…” In our case just as we prematurely celebrated, then came the explosion of infection. The last time I checked Malaysia was list as the world’s number one afflicted country, based on cases per capita.

So, where do we go from here? There is a quip that goes like this: “How do you escape from a deadly quicksand?” Answer: “Don’t get into it.”

The population cannot be trusted to docilely follow the SOP of the MCO. There is no choice. It is the time for the heavy hand. No more play, play. I agree with PM Muhyddin, we can call him “stupid” or his government “back door” but in the face of a clear and present danger let us just hanker down and ride the storm that is Coivid-19. We can settle our differences later on.