Written by Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin, founding president of Ideas.
Published in The Star Online on 31st of January 2020
The government’s task is compounded by those who want to score political points even at a time when everybody should be listening to the scientists.
TWO weeks ago I referred to the meme that wished Happy New Year on Jan 1, than noted that Australia was on fire on Jan 2 and “World War III had begun” (with the US killing by drone strike of senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani) on Jan 3.
The latter two major events have since been crowded out by coverage of two other ongoing situations.
One lies at the nexus of politics and diplomacy, and was correctly predicted by pundits: the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in the US Senate, which promises to deliver much drama as the presidential election approaches.
The other was less predictable but, as many scientists have argued, inevitable in the long run: the outbreak of a new virus, the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
The outbreak has already infected more than 7,000 and killed 170 people and is traced to illegally traded wildlife at a seafood market in Wuhan, China, though this theory is also continually being revised.
With the number of cases now exceeding those of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-03, the Chinese National Health Commission says it could be 10 more days before the coronavirus outbreak peaks.
Indeed, every few years, the world is jolted into concern and action upon reports of an epidemic that could turn into a pandemic.
The new Netflix series Pandemic begins with “it’s not a matter of if, but when” another flu pandemic occurs, and points out that the 50 to 100 million people who died (out of 500 million infected) of influenza between January 1918 and December 1920 outnumber those killed in both World Wars combined, drawing attention to the fact that education on the topic is severely lacking.
My first knowledge of pandemics was through learning about the Black Death in a textbook that included grisly images of the bubonic plague, and years later I was saddened to learn that my ancestor Yamtuan Antah (who survived a war against the British) died from a smallpox epidemic that swept through Negri Sembilan in the late 1880s.Such knowledge helps put scientists’ predictions into context: the current coronavirus outbreak, while serious, is said to likely be insignificant compared to the next flu pandemic.
In Malaysia itself, eight cases of the coronavirus have now been reported, all involving Chinese nationals.
Reports about the arrival of people from China, particularly tourists from Wuhan to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, together with a range of assessments of how ready the authorities are to respond to a proliferation of the outbreak, have triggered anxiety which itself has led to fear-mongering and the trigger-happy spreading of alleged “facts”.
Further conspiracy theories – such as the idea that the virus was deliberately created and spread by a company that has already developed a cure – are hard to kill on social media.
Several people have been arrested for spreading fake news, but the authenticity of many videos that have gone viral (it is difficult to avoid this unintentional pun) remains unverified.
One widely circulated video showed people literally collapsing on the streets of Wuhan (allegedly), while more traditional broadcasters showed journalists being turned away at roadblocks and images of completely empty neighbourhoods at a time when they would normally be particularly busy during the Chinese New Year festivities.
The government’s task is also compounded by politics, of course, with some sensing a useful opportunity to score political points even at a time when everybody should be listening to the scientists.
With many areas of government policy being involved, including immigration, transport, communications and tourism, plus measures at state level, there are many avenues for politicking (and, it must be said on the flip side, for politicians to prove themselves capable), but I hope that science will prevail over populism in decision-making.
For me, the measured tone of some of Malaysia’s most qualified doctors on radio and television – speaking about the symptoms and causes – has assured me that preventive measures on an individual level can go a long way towards protecting oneself.
It should be stressed that it is people with existing illnesses and frailties that are most at risk.
I have written in previous years how Malaysian politics has always been a prominent feature of Chinese New Year open house conversations.
But this year, I sensed that the unease about a potential epidemic within our borders was tempered by the fact that for us Malaysians, unlike in China itself, celebrations can and should continue, but with the realisation that the continuation of our multicultural traditions necessitates vigilance, better public education, greater coordination by government agencies and superior application of individual preventive measures.