Let us Together Stop the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Rebuild the Economy and Society
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented difficulties to Malaysia and the world. The difficulties are severe, multifaceted and multilayered. Besides health, they encompass economic, social, cultural, religious and psychological dimensions and have been affecting all layers of society. Very importantly, the pandemic seriously challenges the country’s governance, putting both the leadership and the governance system to severe test. The business of living and of governance has brought about a ‘new normal’. There are both positive and negative sides to these developments, and many lessons to be learnt.
As has been acknowledged, fighting COVID-19 is like fighting a war. However, it is not an ordinary war since we face an invisible enemy. We obviously need proper strategy and planning, wisdom and single-mindedness, mobilization of relevant professional expertise and material resources, the involvement of civil society organisations, support by the people, and international cooperation. To get all these into operation, we need timely and clear orders and guidelines from the authorities together with a clear communication plan and a responsive mechanism for regular input from the public.
We are fortunate that these elements have been put into action especially since the partial lockdown with the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO) beginning on March 18, 2020. The MCO has a tremendous impact in preventing an exponential rise of the cases, and in steadily ‘flattening the curve’. We have witnessed resistance and even rioting and looting for food in some countries, and deaths by the thousands even in the most developed countries. In Malaysia, the number of COVID-19 fatalities is under control at 1.6% (compared to many other countries at 4.6% to 5.6%, and even 10% for certain badly hit developed countries), and very importantly, social order and peace prevail throughout the country. PSSM would like to express our utmost appreciation to the authorities especially the unsung heroes, the frontline fighters spearheaded by the Ministry of Health, for risking their lives in performing their national duty, and for a job well done. Also, our deepest appreciation to our people of all ethnic groups, religions and strata – despite some initial indifference, confusion and panic buying – for being generally civic conscious, cooperative, compliant and caring.
PSSM takes cognizance of the fact that this unprecedented public health crisis has also triggered a deepening economic and social crisis, verging on a humanitarian catastrophe in some countries. In Malaysia, with factories, offices and most businesses and educational institutions closed and movements curtailed, the consequences are far-reaching. Many companies especially SMEs which constitute 98.5% of business establishments, and employing the largest number of the work force are facing serious cash-flow problems. Confined to their homes, many employees face the stark reality of being thrown out of job and losing their income while many individuals and families are forced to dig deeper into their savings.
At the same time, the most poor and vulnerable groups in society – the homeless, street children, migrant workers and refugees – are finding it difficult to feed themselves while not a few find it hard to have shelter above their heads. There are also those who have to stay in over-crowded flats or apartments, exposing themselves to the risks of infection.
Family lives, work lives, and community dynamics have changed. Admittedly families are spending more time together within close proximity but in this unequal world, the household space is determined by class, social status and wealth. While greater interaction can contribute towards better family ties, patriarchy is a problem in many homes. In this respect, it has been noted that there has been tensions and stress among family members, and a rise in domestic violence against women and children during the MCO.
In Malaysia and across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis has also brought to the fore the ugliest in some groups including state leaders – bigotry, racism, hate, intolerance, recrimination, denial and the blame game. On the other hand, it also brings forth the best in humankind – the outpouring of empathy, bonding and solidarity, generosity, voluntarism, dedication and selflessness, especially of the frontliners irrespective of national boundaries, race and religion. It also brings out talent, good-natured humour and creativity, resulting in more research and innovation in various fields, particularly related to public health. All these promise hope and optimism to rebuild our lives and a new world together.
In Malaysia, the Government on March 11th set up a high-powered body, the Economic Action Council (EAC) chaired by the Prime Minister to address economic problems and challenges arising from the pandemic, and to formulate plans and strategies. Two economic stimulus packages have so far been rolled out – a RM250 billion package on March 27th, of which RM25 billion is to provide a one-off assistance to ease the financial burden of the low income groups, and an additional package of RM10 billion on April 6th mainly as wage subsidies for SMEs to retain their workers for at least six months. Steps have been taken to feed and house the most vulnerable groups in temporary shelter. While these moves are most welcome to ease the people’s burden and to prevent massive layoffs, more sustainable risk-resilient plans for the medium and long term should be in the pipeline.
We are living in a world full of uncertainties, and our society is a ‘risk society’ in which human lives and social systems are vulnerable due to both natural and systemic shocks and disasters. Moving forward into the post-COVID-19 era, PSSM would like to propose the following:
- Raise our level of disaster preparedness to face eventualities especially pandemic diseases, be alert to their outbreak anywhere in the world, use Big Data, and maintain an up-to-date website on diseases especially pandemic diseases for public information and awareness on a sustained basis.
- Build on the strengths of our public healthcare system which has shown tremendous robustness and resilience in this crisis, overcome the gaps, introduce an improved and well-incentivized employment system for medical and support staff, have a ready contingency stockpile of medical supplies including appliances.
- Ensure the provision of public goods like healthcare remain the responsibility of the government, introduce a genuinely people-friendly and inclusive healthcare insurance scheme for the people, and resist neoliberal pressures to privatize healthcare.