By Joachim Ng
India, here we come. With one infected case out of 58 persons, Malaysia is steadily nudging closer to India which has one case out of 50 persons. How did we get out of MCO 1.0 only to find ourselves in MCO 2.0, then MCO 3.0, and now a complete nationwide lockdown?
So we had two chances to squash the Covid, and we lost both. Nature may give us a third chance allowing us to move out of lockdown, but we will lose this chance too if we fail to make the necessary social transformations.
The big error in Malaysia’s earlier strategy was to see the Covid battle in terms of life versus livelihood and piety versus anxiety: either we shut down the economy and save lives, or we sacrifice many lives to save the economy. Either we gather for public observance of rituals to show our piety, or we fall victim to anxiety and stay at home, thereby losing our piety.
This is dangerous bipolar thinking and reflects our general approach towards issues. It’s always one versus the other, an “us” versus “them” either-or mindset. This polarisation is in our brains and not in the world of nature. The goal of pandemic elimination is safeguarding lives and livelihoods by piously observing the SOP rituals.
The moment we get out of lockdown, we should institute three measures: (1) thin out the population, (2) keep a safe distance, and (3) introduce neighbourhood patrols.
(1) Population. When the global human population exceeded 7 billion, that was the stew for the emergence of this deadly zoonotic virus from the wild lands. It’s a creature of the crowds. Our own national statistics demonstrate this fact. Selangor records the highest number — the only state hitting above 100,000 cumulative cases — as its population of 4.2 million is the highest, with half of them living in dense urban areas. The infection tally is 1 in 36 persons, worse than India.
Kuala Lumpur has almost the same number of cases as Johor, although having only half of Johor’s population. KL’s infection ratio is 1 in 31 persons —worse than Selangor. KL always plays host to the largest gatherings and festive street bazaars, in addition to having the most crowded foreign worker hostels and low-cost apartments.
Perak is doing well, but certainly not Ipoh where large crowds tend to gather in the heavily visited areas. Perak’s infection ratio is only 1 in 126 persons, attesting to the state’s sprawling rural and small-town character.
Population density helps spread the virus. Hence, two solutions must be implemented. One is to promote suburban work-life integration by incentivising companies to move out of city centres and intensifying work-from-home practices. Thin out the cities. This is already happening in Europe as a consequence of COVID-19. The Europeans are faster on the ball than Malaysians, and not just in soccer.
The second solution is to reduce the foreign worker population by emphasising vocational training in schools instead of giving it no spot in the curriculum. Equip locals with skills to take up construction, manufacturing, and plantation jobs.
(2) Distancing. The virus is not a flying insect. It gets blown out of somebody’s mouth and lands on you. The fatal error during the relaxed periods between MCOs was to allow diners to remove their masks. There have been many cases of transmission at restaurants, office canteens and roadside stalls. In fact, these should be listed as hot spots for spreading COVID-19.
After lockdown, it has to be made clear that under no circumstances should the mask be removed for eating and drinking without a face shield in place. Make it a regulation to wear a face shield while eating and drinking, unless you’re at home. Eateries must be compelled to keep a stock of shields for sale to customers who don’t have them.
However, most shields are only 32cm wide. These should be classified as for children only, with adult shields to be 33-36cm wide stretching to the start of the ears.
The Government should also review its decision to allow the sale of the popular 3-layered uncontoured flattish mask, as it is often loose fitting and slips down easily. I suggest that manufacturers staple two pieces together and sell them at 50% higher price than the single piece. Double masking doubles your protection level.
Why were government schools allowed to open? Everyone knows that classrooms are congested and spacing between desks is less than 1 metre. Parents who send their children to crowded schools are sending them to the frontline. If we must reopen the schools, divide all students into Team A and Team B with attendance during alternate weeks. This way you thin out all the classrooms by half.
Why is it that under MCO 3.0, kindergartens and nurseries were kept open while spas have to close? Spas are sparsely occupied as treatment is by appointment only and the customer has to leave once the treatment is over. But how does a kindergarten teacher or nursery caregiver stop children from pulling down their masks and hugging each other? If you can manage it, you’re a superhero
Yet another blunder — this time relating to the lockdown rules — is to restrict grocery hours to 8pm. Has anyone not seen videos of the mammoth crowds surging into supermarkets to beat the closing time? In addition to getting food supplies, they will be getting Covid. There is zero crowd control; zero physical distancing. To ensure thin crowds at all hours, the rule should have been to extend grocery hours till midnight.
(3) Patrolling. As stated in the previous article of this column, unless residents form neighbourhood committees as a foundational tier of government and organise street patrols, there will be very many pockets of non-compliance such as in supermarkets that will make the end of lockdown just a respite before the next killer wave.
Radical transformation of the current sociopolitical structure of Malaysia is unavoidable, and someone had better lead the way in the wake of fresh concerns that deadlier SARS-CoV-2 variants may emerge with abilities to bypass all the existing vaccines. There is also recent news of a new type of coronavirus, but at the moment it is unclear what threat it may pose.
In fact, all farm and domestic animals can act as intermediaries to store coronaviruses passed to them by wildlife such as bats. In the right circumstances, the virus is then transmitted to a human being. It is becoming clear that the transmission of coronaviruses from animals to humans may be far more common than once thought.
Under emergency law, formation of neighbourhood committees to organise street patrols with budgetary provision, legal and transparency oversight, as well as powers to issue summonses does not require parliamentary approval. The PM just has to issue an order and see that it gets done.