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.
Culture of civic responsibility, and expert & NGO participation:
- Launch a campaign to promote the experience of keeping personal hygiene, public cleanliness, safety and health awareness, and strengthen the culture of civic responsibility, mutual support and keeping our environment clean and safe. In this way, we are making sustainable environment the good practices and habits enforced under MCO.
- Put in place a network of experts with diverse backgrounds and from different strategic fields that can be called upon to advise the government and educate the people especially in times of crisis.
- Ensure an efficient system of participation and involvement by NGOs who know the ground better and will be able to play their complementary role as part of the third sector to alleviate the negative impact on the people and ensure they enjoy a better quality of life.
Sustainable risk-resilient game plan:
- Develop a comprehensive and sustainable social protection system to help the SMEs and MSMEs cope with such unprecedented economic situations. As argued in Paragraph 8, what we need urgently is a more sustainable and risk-resilient game plan for the medium and long term to be anchored in the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025).
- Integrate the infrastructure and implementation of social protection itself in terms of programmes and data across agencies towards an effective and sustainable social safety nets (SSN) for the employees. However, this SSN is only temporary as it is a transition for these target groups to get out of difficult situations. With the implementation of an effective and sustainable SSN, the target groups will be empowered to continue living in post-COVID-19.
- Incorporate these programmes as part of the 12th Malaysia Plan, a people-centred economic policy that should ensure greater cooperation and policy coherence between agencies as well as between federal and state governments that are aimed at reducing inequality and ensuring sustainable development.
High speed & cost-effective connectivity:
The crisis has brought forth the need to work from home, classes managed on-line, and connectivity to on-line platforms to make purchases for food and other essentials. But gaps do exist, thus it is important to:
- Identify the gaps in our preparedness and connectivity, as not all organisations including universities and businesses are fully prepared for this eventuality.
- Make a leap in connectivity to ensure even remote areas and every home are connected with high speed network.
- Ensure connectivity is cost effective, and that every student has a laptop to facilitate their studies. With enhanced connectivity, SMEs and more so MSMEs can diversify their business model by going on-line besides using the conventional mode to market their products.
Research & innovation:
- Increase funding for research and innovation which is very crucial for the country to progress, or at least maintain it at the present level. The pandemic has made such R&D more imperative and urgent. The World Competitiveness Yearbook 2019 puts Malaysia at number 24th out of 63 countries with an R&D expenditure of 1.44% of our GDP, compared to South Korea which ranked first by spending 4.55%, Taiwan (ranked 4th) spending 3.33%, and Singapore (ranked 18th) spending 1.95%. While financial resources are not easy to come by with the looming global economic recession, the least Malaysia could do is to retain its present level of R&D expenditure and increase it later when the situation allows.
- Revisit the priority areas for R&D and undertake the necessary adjustments given the onslaught of the pandemic. Prioritize research on the impact of the pandemic on the economy and community especially the Bottom 40%, and make policy recommendations with respect to their resilience.
- Use the SDGs as a national research framework where special attention should be given to SDG 16 on governance and SDG 17 on stakeholder partnership. We should take note of Malaysia’s commitment towards inclusive development and Global Agenda 2030 – the 17 Sustainable Development Goals which are cross-cutting in nature. Research in areas of the economy, social, health and environment should be evidence-based. More importantly, data collected should be made accessible to relevant stakeholders.
The Government has decided to extend the MCO by another two weeks from 14th to 28th April 2020 to ensure the pandemic will be well under control. We should use this extended period of ‘staying at home’ to remain intellectually engaged with the various urgent issues, and plan for the challenges ahead. Let us defeat the COVID-19 crisis, and rebuild our society and future together!
Prof. Dato’ Dr. Rashila Ramli, President PSSM
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sity Daud, Deputy President PSSM
The Executive Committee
Malaysian Social Science Association (MSSA/PSSM)