Covid-19 a national security concern, calls for whole-of-society approach – REFSA

COMMENTARY

MAR 15, 2020

Covid-19 a national security concern, calls for whole-of-society approach

By Ivy Kwek & Dr Khor Swee Kheng
 
The Covid-19 is sweeping the globe, affecting 135 countries so far, with cases surpassing 100,000 only nine weeks after it was first reported. World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it to be a pandemic, while United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres characterised it as “a pandemic we have not experienced”.
 
In Malaysia, a tabligh event which was attended by an estimated 15,000 people on Feb 27 to Mar 1 has sparked a new cluster of transmission and is feared to have started a second wave of the viral spread in Malaysia. The authorities have been working hard to track down the participants, but this is straining their contact tracing capacities. There should be no place for complacency, and the government must consider putting more drastic measures in anticipation of possible deterioration.
 
In that regard, the battle against Covid-19 is no longer merely a public health issue. At this scale, there is no doubt that it is a national security concern that has a deep impact on our society and economy. A whole of government and whole-of-society approach is hence warranted.
 
The leadership of the National Security Council (NSC) will be essential in this case to coordinate efforts to curb Covid-19. A special meeting (with the inclusion of the health minister) should convene to discuss the various approach in combating Covid-19, including in the following aspects:
 
i) readiness of healthcare systems
 
ii) public safety and protective measures 
 
iii) communications and public awareness efforts
 
iv) the resilience of our economy
 
v) the duties of employers, religious authorities and organisers of large events. 
 
The council must also treat this as a national security concern and hold regular sessions to monitor closely and review the policies as the situation unfolds, at the same time organise the efforts for public-private collaborations.
 
First of all, our healthcare system and hospital facilities will need an urgent boost in resources in the face of the challenges to come. Apart from public hospitals, private hospitals and military hospitals must now join hands with the civilian agencies in sharing their facilities in preparation for more hospitalisations of patients (Malaysia has 1.98 beds per 1,000 residents, below the average of developed nations at 2.5 per 1,000 residents). 
 
Private hospitals can also contribute human capital, absorption of non-Covid-19 healthcare services from public hospitals at no or heavily-discounted costs, and develop their own Covid-19 protocols in concordance with Health Ministry guidance. Particular care must be given to the deployment of all available critical care beds in the country. Deployment of healthcare personnel to the front lines must be done swiftly while taking utmost care of their welfare.
 
Secondly, there must also be a clear directive on the measures to impose social distancing among the population, cancellation of public events, travel bans and suspension of flights from selected countries, as well as mandatory screening or self-isolation for those travelling to Malaysia. 
 
Scientists have recommended these social distancing measures to curb the spread (the scientific term is “flatten the curve”), while some cities have opted for lockdowns. It is also important to remember that the police personnel, airport staffs and immigration department officials are also high-risk groups due to their long exposure to the public and requires extra care on their personal health.
 
Further, the production, distribution and pricing of essential goods such as hand sanitisers, masks as well as other household goods must be regulated to ensure no shortages, particularly in light of panic buying by many. The government must also ensure that these products can reach those with mobility issues, particularly the elderly. 
 
Essential kit distribution among the more vulnerable groups should be organised. The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers must consider increasing production in the short-term (while taking care of their workers’ welfare, benefits, hygiene and safety if they are working double shifts), and increase manufacturing capacity for future stockpiling for Malaysia.
 
Fourthly, risk communication efforts in combating Covid-19 are also paramount, particularly in a time where fake news and half-truths are prevalent and are often shared quickly without verification. 
 
The government must channel the right information to citizens to avoid confusion, and must educate the public on the difference between being vigilant and being unnecessarily panicky. This includes facts and figures about the pandemic, dos and don’ts, ways to seek help (location of the nearest medical centres, establishing of hotline etc.) 
 
Public assurance by national leaders in times of crises are necessary. For example, the prime ministers of Singapore and New Zealand addressed the nation on the situation in a direct and creative manner through the production of videos on their social media platform on top of traditional broadcast media. The media, in turn, must play a role in balanced reporting with a calm and sensible tone.
 
It is also important to assume that the contagion of the virus is no longer confined to urban areas (which have seen more cases due to the effect of international travel and population density), but has spread other more rural areas. 
 
Public awareness campaigns should therefore not only confined to urban areas, but to take into consideration the residents in rural areas, who tend to have less access to information, may require different media, methods and volume of communication, and more practical suggestions.
 
Lastly, the government must not ignore marginalised groups, such as foreign workers, refugees, the stateless and prisoners. Malaysia has some 1.76 million foreign workers and 178,990 registered refugees and asylum seekers as of 2019, on top of an estimated 5-6 million undocumented migrants. 
 
These are vulnerable groups of people who live in the shadows, away from the detection of authorities, have no healthcare coverage nor access to healthcare facilities in this country, and might not even speak the local languages. A system that criminalises attendance in public healthcare facilities will turn them away. Malaysia cannot let them become a reservoir of infection. 
 
If the virus breaks out within these communities, it will be even harder to detect and contain. It is important for the government to recognise the problem and reconsider certain immigration policies so that the undocumented migrants feel confident to seek help. 
 
The government must also work with NGOs working with the migrants and refugee communities to offer free healthcare and organise public awareness campaigns and information leaflets in their own languages. Meanwhile, prison authorities must be vigilant about the situation, to avoid Covid-19 cases in prisons. Given the compromising and crowded conditions in our prisons, such an outbreak will be devastating.
 
National security is often thought of in the traditional sense, where it involves inter-state conflicts, territorial disputes or combating challenges from non-state actors such as terrorist groups or pirates. We often fail to recognise pandemic and epidemic outbreaks as a threat, along with food security, climate changes, natural disasters are all national security issues (also known as non-traditional security risks) that threatens our societal well-being. 
 
To be fair, our NSC has taken these into consideration and is structurally equipped to deal with national security issues of this kind. Unfortunately, it only sits once every three months, which is sorely inadequate to deal with national security concerns that often evolves quickly, for example, a pandemic of this scale.
 
Going forward, we need a stronger and more agile NSC that can respond quickly to security issues by combining the efforts of all security agencies which hitherto tend to function in silos. Defence Minister Ismail Sabri (photo), in his capacity as the senior minister for security matters, must also play a bigger role in bringing everyone to work together. 
 
Meanwhile, the role of state, district and municipal governments must not remain understated. NSC must ensure good coordination of efforts and unobstructed communication channels between the federal and the state and sub-state levels.
 
In the long run, there needs to be a paradigm shift, and hopefully, lessons to be learnt to strengthen our crisis response and management. 
 
In the meantime, we call upon the government to treat Covid-19 as a national security issue, and to show leadership by adopting a whole-of-society approach as we combat this unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic together as a nation.
 
 

— First published in MALAYSIAKINI on 15 March 2020.

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