By Joachim Ng
Remember this date: 27 August 2020. On that day, Malaysia had only five new cases of COVID-19 infection. Perak recorded zero cases. In Singapore on roughly the same day, 50 cases were announced by its Health Ministry. Just four months later on 27 December 2020, Malaysia recorded 1,196 cases. Singapore had only five cases that day.
Malaysia climbed on to achieve a stunning record of 4,275 on 23 January 2021, a day when Singapore registered only 10 cases. In leaping way above Singapore’s highest toll of 1,426 cases announced for 20 April 2020, Malaysia exposed the absence of forward-planning initiatives.
We failed the TOWS (Threats-Opportunities-Weaknesses-Strengths) health check because no politician took it upon themselves to do a stress test. The TOWS health check is a must whenever a new situation develops that may threaten lives and livelihood. On 5 April 2020 when Singapore’s cases started going from two digits to three digits, later soaring to four digits on the 20th, a new situation had clearly arisen.
The new situation emerged when Covid infections swept through foreign worker dormitories in Singapore, which had not anticipated this happening. By May, our Dewan Rakyat should have conducted a TOWS health check as a forward-planning initiative.
Starting with Threats, which politician in Malaysia was ignorant that we had terribly overcrowded foreign worker dormitories particularly in the Klang Valley? Most industries employed foreign workers, and how did they live? Four to a room was a luxury, six to eight was more common. These dormitories were located in construction sites, factory zones, housing estates, and apartment blocks.
With the number of migrant workers (legal and illegal) totalling 3.7 million in April 2020, most of whom lived in substandard accommodation, wasn’t this a Threat as visible as Jupiter? The only Malaysian who did a TOWS health check was Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, who on 25 May 2020 revealed that Covid clusters had developed in three construction sites that also housed foreign workers.
He said that day: “If we see, the SOPs for construction sites already exist, but they only look at the construction sites or factories or the workplace. What’s important is that we have to look at their lodgings: how is their house, how do they live? We were made to understand, for example, in Masjid India in one small apartment — 30 people live there in one apartment. So confined spaces are one of the factors why COVID-19 can spread.”
By early December 2020, the number of foreign worker clusters linked to factories and construction sites had grown to 12, contributing 13,000 new cases in total. The main source of infection in January 2021 continues to be the manufacturing sector, with 99 clusters now. There remain large pockets of SOP breaches in dormitories and group transportation of workers.
Moving to the next step of the TOWS health check, we failed to capitalise on the Opportunities that the Covid outbreak in Singapore’s dormitories presented to Malaysia. In July 2019, the Dewan Rakyat had passed the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act compelling employers to provide decent accommodation for all foreign workers in all sectors.
Employers had one year to add new dormitories by using cheap modular panels and deploying foreign workers to construct the houses. But there was no push from the Dewan Rakyat, and nobody acted to redirect home-building efforts. Here also were opportunities to reduce the over-reliance on foreign workers and re-hire locals for service and manufacturing jobs.
But lacking initiative, the Dewan Rakyat threw away these opportunities. The consequence? Covid cases went from two digits in September to three digits in October and four digits in November, frequently hitting above 4,000 in January 2021.
Here’s another date to remember: 26 September 2020. On that day, Sabah went to the polls. Two weeks before that, we had 58 Covid cases — ten times the number on August 27. One day before polling, the figure had reached 111. On October 26, one month after polling, the national figure had soared to 1,240. On December 26, it became 2,335.
Journalists covering the Sabah elections had observed serious breaches of the physical distancing and social distancing rules, with mass rallies where crowds rubbed shoulders. Politicians failed to admonish their supporters, and were themselves violators.
This is year 2021 and our politicians have still not done the TOWS health check. Instead, before the declaration of emergency, they were clamouring for general elections to be held the soonest possible on the excuse that Singapore managed its elections without triggering a rise in Covid infections.
If our politicians do the TOWS health check, they will come to the third step and that is to frankly acknowledge Weaknesses. Unlike Singapore, we are a nation without social discipline. The evidence is in the litter that our people throw all over the country and the indiscriminate vehicular parking jamming up the roads.
If the authorities can’t enforce anti-litter regulations and issue summons on all illegally parked vehicles, how can they enforce discipline on politicians and their supporters to comply with SOPs during a general election? If we hold elections before the vaccine jab is given to 70% of the population, Covid cases may hit 1 million 90 days after polling day.
Now to the last step of the TOWS health check: our Strengths. The world’s strongest man according to the Bible, Samsom, lost all his strength because he fell asleep in the presence of a Threat. We have been caught sleeping on the foreign worker dormitories.
Are we still asleep? The World Health Organisation warns of a new Threat, a Disease X pandemic that is likely to occur within the next 10 years. It’s because all the ingredients for Covid brew are still there: human overpopulation, forest devastation, wildlife trafficking, and livestock jam-packing.
As the Economist weekly stated in its December 19, 2020 issue: “The 80 billion animals slaughtered for food and fur each year are Petri dishes for the viruses and bacteria that evolve into a lethal human pathogen every decade or so. This year the bill came through and it was astronomical.”
Singapore’s premier Lee Hsien Loong warned the republic’s Parliament last September to stay alert for Disease X. It is only a matter of time before Disease X strikes, he said, urging his nation to prepare for the day. Wake up now, Malaysia, or we may slip into a coma.