Make use of state of emergency

The number of new and active cases — and their geographic spread — as well as of deaths, is a good guide which can be refined further, such as by looking at the levels of severity and need or not of hospitalisation, efficacy of home treatment and so on, which health experts will know about. - NSTP file pic, for illustration purposes only
The number of new and active cases — and their geographic spread — as well as of deaths, is a good guide which can be refined further, such as by looking at the levels of severity and need or not of hospitalisation, efficacy of home treatment and so on, which health experts will know about. – NSTP file pic, for illustration purposes only

WHERE the country is right now, it is best to concentrate on fighting Covid-19 in the next six months.

While there are the MCOs and SOP in place, and the vaccines coming, the virus is nowhere under control, in Malaysia and around the world.

We all have access to the numbers and challenges: the deaths, total cases, choked hospitals, exhausted frontliners, distribution and efficacy o f vaccines, economies on their knees. The dichotomy between health and economy is a false one.

If the virus is not brought under control, the economy will continue to falter. The British example of holding out for the sake of the economy has resulted in full lockdown, excruciating number of deaths and infections — and seizure of the economy.

We must take care we do not fall between two stools like that, and break the back of our economy. The mix between lives and the economy in this crisis must always favour public health, which is a backbone of sustainable development.

Having said that, the measure of Covid-19 risk and the extent to which economic activity is allowed, are devilishly difficult to determine.

This is a task the country should be concentrating on, to come up within the next six months or less with a pandemic criteria to measure the key performance indicators of the virus spread and the consequent severity of measures to be put in place.

The special committee the prime minister has proposed to advise the king on whether the Covid-19 situation has eased or improved enough to end the state of emergency, is a good idea.

Its advice, however, has to be based on a set of pandemic criteria which has to be developed. A group of healthcare and economic experts from the public and private sectors should be established to achieve this. I know members of the medical profession are an opinionated—and divided — lot, as are the economists.

But, they must get together in the interest of the country to come up with refined and strategic real time indicators of where we are on the pandemic curve and what concomitant measures we should take. The number of new and active cases — and their geographic spread — as well as of deaths, is a good guide which can be refined further, such as by looking at the levels of severity and need or not of hospitalisation, efficacy of home treatment and so on, which health experts will know about.

Similarly the R0, the “R naught”, which reflects how contagious an infectious disease is, in this case Covid-19, can be explained and developed further in terms, for example, of the time series used and why, and in a situation soon of positive impact of the vaccines as they roll out.

The expert group should also look into a clear plan of action on incorporating testing and tracing in the overall pandemic strategy.

This has not been evident to the general public, who only pick up bits and pieces of what is happening in other countries.

The people have placed so much hope in the vaccines, but the jury is still out on their efficacy, with enough scary outcomes to dent confidence in them.

Yet the government has to place the orders and be positive, although we might end up with vaccines the populace may not favour — and unfairly blame the government for it! This virus is in all senses a moving target.

The expert group, therefore, can put some understandable sense and guideposts to available vaccines, and raise the alert that they are not a panacea as well as identify clearly the SOP that must continue to be observed.

Based on all this science, the economists in the group should work with the health experts to determine what economic sectors can operate under what circumstances with what health safety measures.

The debate, I’m sure will be robust, which no doubt already occurs now, but we must develop better defined parameters, which would trigger the required policy mix between lives and livelihoods driven by the science.

It would be remiss of them if the economists did not also look into mandatory inclusive and responsible business practices, the absence of which has caused suffering and spread of the disease.

If these next six months are used to communicate better with the public and have greater transparency about what is being done, what needs to be done, and where we are at in the battle against Covid-19, the country would be better placed than where we are now — gripped by fear of the virus and by uncertainty of government.

The expert group, through the Health director-general, can feed into the special committee which advises the king on the state of the pandemic and provide vital input into whether there is need to continue with the state of emergency.

Alternatively, we can use all of this time to continue with the politicking which has led us to a lack of clear strategy on the Covid-19 crisis and unending political intrigue to topple the government. Many people believe having a general election now is a death trap, pointing to the tidal wave of infections from last September’s Sabah state election as evidence.

On the other hand, some argue if other countries, like the United State s, can hold a massive election in the midst of the pandemic, why cannot Malaysia manage it ? America is not a good example. It has the worst record in managing the Covid-19 crisis, with the highest number of deaths and cases in the world.

To get out of the deep hole it is in, President elect Joe Biden is proposing a huge US$1.9 trillion package.

We do not want and cannot afford to go the American way. Let’s forget about America and just look at the behavioural pattern of our politicians at the best of times.

In a general election where the stakes will be the highest ever, we can expect the worst behaviour, whatever the SOP, and still end up with a hung Parliament!

And thence back to the ceaseless political deal-making we now see happening. Let’s next look at a change of government assuming the Muhyiddin administration is replaced.

How stable will the new government be, with all the leapfrogging that is going on and the fractured opposition — and divided political parties within the opposition?

Just imagine a changing of the guard right now. New personnel coming in. No continuity. Changing direction of negotiations such as on the vaccines. Learning the ropes while the crisis is on.

In the last Pakatan Harapan government they were still learning the ropes with NO CRISIS on. And, most of all, uncertainty of stable government with so many chameleon MPs.

How long would that next government last? Are the people of Malaysia ever going to be served? I am non-partisan, but we are between a rock and a hard place.

If there was trust, it should be acceptable that the powers inherent in the prime minister during the state of emergency will be used to address the Covid-19 crisis exclusively, as he has openly stated, despite whatever is contained in the Emergency Ordinance, which hopefully reflects excess to reserve powers that will not be abused.

Whatever, the Malaysian people should hold the prime minister to his word, as Allah is his witness.

That we need the time to address the crisis, not to make use of the emergency to prolong his tenure in office.

Therefore, it would be good if the expert group was set up to support the special committee to advise the king. Let us put some trust in him knowing, in addition, there is the wisdom in the proclamation of a state of emergency for a limited time, which is to end on Aug 1.

With care not to drag the king and the Malay rulers into uncharted territory, which could have unintended consequences, we must also have faith in our king discharging his prerogative in the interest of the people of the country in accordance with the Constitution.

We should not give cause for the emergency to be extended even as the government must not abuse it.

Most of all, the next six months should be dedicated to coming out with a comprehensive Covid-19 strategy to contain the virus and allow the people of our beloved country to get on with life as much as possible.


The writer, a former NST group editor, returns to write on local and international political issues