Malaysia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has lessons for both the Government and the rakyat to consider. What are some improvements that can be made to ensure we are better prepared for future crises?
Malaysia is now at the half-way point of its Movement Control Order (MCO). Analyses abound on its Dos and Don’ts, implementation, and similarities and dissimilarities with other “lockdowns” around the world. Despite the health, economic and political crises that Malaysia is in, this author is hopeful that the nation will overcome the challenge of COVID-19 and that we will be stronger and perhaps even more united as a result.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that security encompasses every single cog of government machinery. Thus far, Malaysia has proven that it does have the technical expertise and capacity needed to respond to COVID-19. While we are technically competent, however, it is unclear if we are able to meet demands at the national level in terms of resources.
The first step to crisis proofing Malaysia in the future entails a massive boost and reinvestment in all fields that are required during an emergency – from healthcare, security and law enforcement to technological infrastructure. For example, the current pandemic highlights the urgency of protecting our healthcare system from over-stretching and eventually collapsing in future crises. The pandemic also raises the issue of whether the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) field hospitals are suited for an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19.
Second, food security is essential to pacifying the economic woes of the rakyat. The fear of not earning an income superseding the fear of being infected will diminish if people are not hungry, particularly those who have to earn daily in order to eat daily. The Prihatin stimulus package announced on 27 March provides much-needed temporary relief for survival throughout the MCO. Financial security aside, however, measures must also be put in place (and communicated) to ensure a continuous supply of food. Despite assurances, panic buying is an almost natural reflex for those who can afford it in times of crisis, with repercussions for those who cannot.
Third, it is possible to securitise, and even over-securitise, a national crisis and entirely overlook the possible implications of doing so. The Royal Malaysia Police’s (RMP) directive to obtain an approval for interstate travel led to large gatherings at police stations on the eve of the MCO, when large gatherings are an essential MCO Don’t. There have also been conflicting instructions between the National Security Council (NSC) and Ministry of Health (MOH) on the usage of masks, which has resulted in supermarkets prohibiting those who do not wear them from entering. The NSC alone cannot manage and mitigate a crisis, particularly if the issue lies outside of its purview. Relevant ministries, agencies and experts must also be consulted. In Malaysia’s response to COVID-19, the MOH should continue to lead to prevent the securitisation of the pandemic.
Fourth, it is in our national interest to regularise the undocumented refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with a national database that consists of biometric data. They are a major security concern for any country even if not a threat. The Government, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), NGOs and refugee community organisations must stop working in silos and cooperate fully on this front. The pandemic highlights the health-security implications of continuing the current policy of not having a policy on such undocumented groups, as authorities face difficulties in contact tracing and surveillance, both of which are essential to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Fifth, improvements must be made on the Government’s ability to communicate effectively in a crisis. This was also a key lesson in Malaysia’s management of the disappearance of flight MH370. A communications committee must be able to control the narrative of the crisis as well as the solution (in this case, the MCO). This entails better communication and coordination amongst the different ministries and agencies, and better streamlining of information to the media, which are imperative to keep the rakyat correctly informed and to prevent fake news and fear mongering.
On the economic front, attention must be given to work in essential services as well as the capacity of local industries to provide.
There is a newfound appreciation for work that was previously known as “low-skilled” or “low-wage” – from delivery workers, grocery and food workers, cleaners and garbage collectors, to public transport and e-hailing drivers. According to MCO rules, such work is considered essential and have continued while the majority of us work from home. Moving forward, low-skilled or low-wage work should be publicised as “essential work” and be compensated accordingly in order to encourage more employment in the sector (particularly amongst locals). While healthcare workers and law enforcement officials are imperative in containing COVID-19, those in “essential work” are vital in running our country on a daily basis.
Second, local industries should be encouraged to produce more essential items, such as health and food supplies, to avoid issues of interdependence or over-reliance on other economies. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world with countries running low on medical supplies and prioritising their own efforts. In Malaysia, messages of hospitals needing masks, gloves, sanitisers, disinfectants, face shields and shoe covers – to name a few examples – went viral on social media with netizens lending a hand. If China was still in the middle of containing COVID-19, perhaps Malaysia would be unable to receive 100,008 test kits, 100,000 N95 face masks, 500,000 surgical masks, 50,000 Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) and 200 ventilators on 28 March. We need to go further in producing more essential items domestically to ensure adequate supplies in the event that other economies can no longer deliver.
As for the rakyat, lessons abound for us too.
The hiccups that Malaysia faced in the early days of the MCO were our responsibility as much as the Government’s. A pandemic like COVID-19 has shown that a national crisis affects every single person in the country, from the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong right down to the undocumented. In a national crisis, we are only as strong as our weakest link. In the case of this pandemic, we are only as healthy as our neighbours.
The decision to include the MAF in assisting the implementation of MCO was a result of our non-compliance. Crisis communications issues aside, we generally lacked a sense of civic duty at the beginning. The “partial lockdown” was seen as an invasion of our freedom and privacy, instead of our collective responsibility to temporarily compromise on the norms of everyday life. This was evident across the board in both the urban and rural areas, with news headlines shedding light on some choosing to eat in public, to exercise, to balik kampung, to pray as a congregation and to even refuse to cooperate with (or flat-out lie to) medical staff.
The non-compliance to the MCO is an example of the rakyat not holding ourselves accountable in a national crisis. This attitude cannot repeat itself in the future. We must realise, and we must also accept, that not everything is the Government’s responsibility. The Government has only so much control and capacity. The rakyat have their own responsibilities – to themselves, their communities and to the Government to allow the latter to do its job.
In spite of everything, non-profit social media campaigns have been set up to support our frontliners and the vulnerable, from the B40 to the homeless to the undocumented. For example, #kitajagakita or kitajaga.us is a verified listing of organisations and community groups that are working to assist those who are affected by the MCO. It is a platform for those who are seeking and offering help, in cash and in kind. This initiative demonstrates that there are opportunities to contribute from the comfort of one’s own home.
Every Malaysian is enlisted in a national crisis, whether one is at the forefront or at home. This responsibility should never be taken lightly.