Written by YAM Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin, founding president of IDEAS
First published in The Star and Borneo Post on 20 March 2020
For a time, we in Malaysia felt relatively safe, seeing other countries suffering more, but Covid-19 has made its presence powerfully felt with the second wave of cases beginning on 27 February. Daily routines have already been significantly changed in the last two weeks; a new normal will set in over the next two weeks; and everyday life may continue to change in the weeks and even months after that.
The first erasures from my calendar were conferences and lectures, diplomatic receptions, weddings and concerts. Many of the cultural organisations I’m involved with had to cancel shows and international tours, then rehearsals and routine meetings. The losses felt by friends involved in the performing arts, travel and hospitality sectors were a prelude to what is now being felt by most sectors of the economy.
After Perlis, Negeri Sembilan suspended Friday prayers with a decision to close all mosques and suraus, before the federal government announced more wide-ranging restrictions. It is with religious events that leadership is especially required to contain transmissions, with two thirds of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia so far traced to a multi-day gathering of missionaries at a mosque in Sri Petaling. It is truly alarming to read that such gatherings are still continuing in other countries, for while it is one thing to choose to leave one’s own fate to God, it is another (and I would suggest, entirely unholy) thing to put others’ lives at risk.
It is incumbent upon all of us to exercise caution, common sense and cooperation with the authorities. In times of crisis, even those of us who are usually suspicious of the power of the government accept that controls and restrictions are required, when supported by the scientific community.
Still, there have been failures of communication that must be learnt from: the rumour of a “lockdown” led to a mass exodus from Kuala Lumpur when the Movement Control Order was eventually issued (the difference not being adequately explained to a population with no experience of either), exacerbated by a requirement for police permission to travel between states (“even from Bangsar to Petaling Jaya”), rescinded when police stations saw throngs of people applying for permits, and eventually re-imposed, with police checks reportedly now in operation. These are the most onerous movement restrictions on the peninsula since the Malayan Emergency.
Confusion also reigned among those inbound from overseas, and there are conflicting policies about how to exercise at a time when immunity-boosting endorphins would come in handy most: while small gyms and sports in enclosed areas (like squash) are restricted, some places are allowing individual outdoor running. Perhaps YouTube exercise videos are safest.
What is unforgivable is putting public health concerns after politics, which was it looked like when chief ministers of five states were left out of a National Action Council meeting on Covid-19, for which the chief secretary to the government has apologised. Party affiliations aren’t going to disappear, but now is the time to suspend stubborn loyalties and cooperate in the national interest, even if the wounds of recent betrayals still linger. The same can be said about many countries, especially the United States where calls to “rise above politics” are often followed by more of the same partisan actions, in an election year.
Also with many countries, the damage to our economy will be devastating, and as I write, calibrations seem to be ongoing to determine exactly which industries will be able to continue operating, with many companies insisting that they can help the nation more effectively by proceeding with appropriate safeguards rather than by shutting down completely. Injections into stock markets, reliefs for businesses, subsidies for essential goods, protections for workers’ salaries and direct cash transfers to citizens are all options that can be deployed to cushion the impact, with income tax deadlines already being extended.
Even with controlled movement, we can do our part to support the economy and society by working efficiently from home (board meetings so far have been significantly quicker by phone), ordering take-aways and deliveries (and tipping the riders, though with social distancing etiquette) and sending cheerful and uplifting messages on social media.
One already in circulation comes from medical personnel, reminding us to stay home, so that they can better do their job as we all aim to flatten the curve. In addition to saluting the heroism of doctors and nurses, we should also be grateful to people working in shelters taking care of others, those providing food preparation and distribution services, cleaners, security guards and and police officers who are providing protection and assurance at a time when both are much needed.
Stay safe everyone!