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Surviving Covid-19 siege – Malaysia needs a lockdown exit strategy

By Raja Ahmad Iskandar Fareez

Imagine the joy of embracing our loved ones. Schoolchildren returning to classes. University students going back to campuses. Restaurants and stalls bustling with customers hanging out with their friends or co-workers. These are some of the pictures painted in our minds of a time when we have finally won the Covid-19 war. 

This war-time analogy has been widely used to describe the colossal undertaking of containing and mitigating the pandemic and how our strategies must be executed with utmost precision and synchronisation from everyone involved. It was even co-opted by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s and his administration in many of their communications. 

Yet, we may have failed to recognise how this fight against a virus is vastly different than any conventional warfare we may have in our minds. Firstly, the enemy is invisible and lurking around within our community. As we learnt the hard way – No walls can stop it. No prisons can contain it. 

Secondly, we are in this fight for the long haul. It is a long-term siege by the virus. One of the ways to end this siege is through vaccination. But this can only truly happen when a sizeable number of the world’s population is vaccinated. Till then, the virus can mutate into more dangerous variants and potentially render certain vaccines ineffective. Indeed, it has become a battle of attrition between us and the virus. We need to outlive and survive longer than the virus. 

Due to the long-term nature of this fight, we cannot just put our lives on hold until we win this war. Going in and out of lockdowns is not the answer. If the lockdown were to be extended by another six weeks, It was recently reported that around 50,000 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) might close down. This means more jobs could be under threat and people’s livelihoods could potentially be destroyed. So far, the government has announced a two-week extension of the lockdown till 28 June. Whether we will face other extensions beyond that is yet to be seen.

Neither can we afford to do nothing and put all of our hopes in the “vaccine basket”. The death toll continues to mount day by day – 109, 87, 82, 76, 75, 74, and 84 deaths a day – accumulating to 3,768 fatalities as of 11 June. The rising rate of brought in dead (BID) cases is also worrying and should also be looked into. 

Remedial action has to be taken by identifying the potential issues leading to these deaths. Meanwhile, Covid-19 testing should be ramped up vigorously to detect ‘hidden cases’ within the community early on and appropriate health interventions implemented to ensure they do not deteriorate any further. 

The current administration should seize the opportunity during this lockdown to increase testing capacity to reach millions daily in line with suggestions by experts and policymakers such as Former Health Minister YB Dr. Dzulkefly Ahmad,  Former Deputy Health Minister YB Dr. Lee Boon Chye, YB Dr. Kelvin Yii, and YB Senator Liew Chin Tong among others. By systematically identifying and isolating positive cases during this period, we can be assured to weed out any community spread once the country loosens its movement restrictions.  

It is also worrying to see continued emergence of workplace clusters despite the current lockdown. Of the 16 new clusters discovered recently, 12 were workplace clusters. If we cannot contain outbreaks under these supposedly strict lockdown conditions, what hopes do we have in doing the same when we decide to open up our economy?

Formulating a Robust Lockdown Exit Strategy

Post-lockdown, the country should aim to control and contain outbreaks without needing to go into another nationwide movement restriction. The true mark of the effectiveness of pandemic control guidelines is their ability to allow Malaysians to carry on their respective lives with as little disruption as possible. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should not be about blanket closures or openings of certain sectors but should detail out specifically how businesses or organisations can remain operational without endangering others. 

As infections from workplaces continue to rise, we cannot help but wonder if the current set of SOPs measures up to this test. For example, are the requirements to physical distancing alone while indoors enough given scientific findings that coronavirus is airborne? What then are the guidelines on improving ventilation systems at work and public spaces? Following the science and formulating SOPs and guidelines that are backed by data and evidence are essential in managing the pandemic while allowing people to go about their daily lives. 

With more Covid-19 saliva-based rapid self-testing kits becoming available in the market, as seen in Singapore and those provided by Selangor State Government for positive patients, periodic testing can be another item in the arsenal to keep workplace outbreaks in check. If the government can make these kits widely available and affordable, through subsidies or other measures, frequent proactive testing could be considered as a preventive tool for businesses to identify and isolate suspected cases and close contacts. 

But the uncertainties that arise once a person is confirmed positive might dissuade people from coming forward to test. This includes factors such as conditions in the quarantine centres, requirement to bear the cost foreign workers, and potential closure of operations. Undocumented migrants and refugees might also be reluctant due to fear of detainment or deportation. For daily wage earners such as contract workers, gig workers, and freelancers, they will have to contend with potential loss of income as they might not be able to work during isolation. 

The government has a role to step in to alleviate these uncertainties. Systemic economic support should be given in terms of food aid or cash transfers in cases where breadwinners of the household have to isolate. Employers of foreign workers should have the option to quarantine positive patients in their own quarters, as long as the dwelling meets the requirements and patients are given the necessary equipment and guidelines to self-monitor. 

Mobilisation must Whole-of-Government-Led

We should not be cornered into the myopic thinking of choosing between saving lives or livelihoods. In reality, we need to save lives today and we must protect livelihoods so we can outlive the virus in the longer term. If we plan carefully, and the government is willing to spend and do whatever it takes to win this war, we can achieve both of these goals.

In the chaotic times of war and crisis, the public look towards government for some semblance of certainty and assurance.  It is time for the government to buck up, follow the science, and streamline its many ministries and agencies to set a clear direction forward. Only with a cohesive whole-of-government leadership can we mobilise the whole-of-society on a path towards victory 

-Published in Malay Mail and Solidaritas on 13 June 2021; Focus Malaysia on 14 June 2021.