Be afraid, be very afraid

Increasingly challenging' situation at Selangor quarantine centre due to  growing admissions: Health department - CNA
Image: Channel News Asia

There is no time to lose. Malaysia is at the top in the world in terms of new cases per million of population and the number keeps rising. The recovery rate is falling and the number of people dying is increasing.

New variants of the virus have mutated which are challenging the full effectiveness of available vaccines. Hospitals are full, frontliners stretched and stressed.

We are in a desperate situation. Yes, a full lockdown comes into force tomorrow but it is uncertain whether the ravages of the pandemic can be brought under control. The economy will certainly suffer. The people will suffer even more, those who live. Many are dying and will die.

The nation, the people and the government should move together to face this crisis which threatens to break the country. We are staring at the abyss. Three things must be done quick.

FIRST, the prime minister should form a government of national unity to manage this crisis. He has been urged by many for some time now to set up that emergency government, but has chosen to ignore such advice. He may feel his bargaining position may have been eroded by seeking to form such a government at this time with his back against the wall.

But this is not the time for political calculation, party or personality. This is a matter of national survival at so many levels. In any case, he will still be prime minister and, by riding above narrow politics, he would be doing himself a world of good showing statesmanship at the time of greatest need.

The national unity cabinet should comprise representatives from all political parties represented in Parliament, of course, but could include non-partisan competent professionals.

Yes, there is the risk of political parties and leaders double-crossing the prime minister but they will be exposed for all to see. If the national unity government is brought down, there is every justification to, indeed, declare an emergency, which will be a different ball game, with full powers in his hands, for there is no way a general election can be held. Holding one would be suicidal.

SECOND, end the state of emergency such as it is and reconvene Parliament. Parliament is the right and proper forum to discuss policy issues and to pass the necessary legislation. The present emergency has not got widespread support and its end will help the process of forming a common national purpose at this time, yes, of grave emergency.

There will be some grandstanding and idiots, in Parliament, but the speaker’s more active and intelligent role should help to contain such twits.

Indeed a People’s Advisory Council should be established to also give advice to the government — comprising representatives of civil society, business and professional bodies. It will be a source of sanity and objectivity — which could also highlight shortfalls and failures in parliamentary discussions.

The role of conventional and social media is critical to highlight the good and to differentiate it from the bad, whether people or policies, but reporting should be accurate and committed to the urgent common national good — containment of the virus and management of the risks.

With Parliament back in session, it should re-examine the statutory debt limit of 60 per cent of GDP, so that the government can issue Covid Recovery Bonds and take on other debt to help people and businesses under lockdown. It could be examined whether such bonds could be excluded from the calculation of government debt as it is an emergency that we are facing. Developed countries have bust all limits and are masters of quantitative easing.

With a national unity government and a Parliament making it accountable, the people and others would have the confidence to take up the special purpose bonds. There are other ways for the government to raise money that can be scrutinised, such as through agencies whose liabilities are not in the calculation of total debt.

THIRD, the people must adhere to SOPs strictly. However, they see double standards where big names and politicians flout the law and get away with it. This does not make for a successful regime of SOPs. When they see a government which is united of purpose and a Parliament fit for purpose and a People’s Advisory Council suited to the purpose — and the end of double standards — there will be national commitment and buy-in.

The people also see events which have caused spikes in Covid-19 cases which are irresponsible and entirely avoidable. Starting with the Tabligh cluster from February last year, to the Sabah election also last year in September and the Ramadan/Hari Raya surges this year, which showed laxity of enforcement and couldn’t-care less non-adherence by religious and political leaders and big shots, the people see the SOPs as an imposition only on them that do not contain the spread of the virus at all.

These cycles cannot continue. Otherwise, we are headed for Armageddon. We do not want to become a country and economy of grave-diggers.

The people are also angry with the slow speed of the vaccine roll-out. There has to be greater accountability and transparency. Right now, they are very angry, with many explanations they cannot accept.

There are many intricacies and power political play in the access to vaccines in the world. These should be explained with clarity and consistency. At the moment they only see moving targets which are not hit. They also see systems for applications for vaccination which do not work 100 per cent.

Whether 150,000 vaccines administered daily will achieve herd immunity by the end of this year, with previous targets and timelines not met, is a source of grave scepticism.

And the challenges will not end. Afterwards, there will be the issue of booster vaccinations. Of testing for antibodies. Even now of mass testing and a regime of efficient contact tracing. Of opening up social and economic life but not letting the guard down. Not easy, but the people — and the government and political leaders — must understand the change, some would say nature’s epochal correction, that has taken place.

With a national unity government, a functioning Parliament, further people representation to offer advice, no double standards and greater transparency there will be, if not a feel-good factor (how can there be given the enveloping pandemic), greater belief and hope among the people that the country is not running into the ground.

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