In late March, when I looked out my window at 7am, I would see five or six people walking around the padang outside my house. Two thoughts would immediately cross my mind: “These people sure are confident during a pandemic”, and “This might make for a good column”.
I have long said that one advantage of being in Malaysia is that you can do almost anything you want, if you know how to go about it. How-ever, that tenet is being strongly tested during this Covid-19 crisis.
It started with the uncle cardiologist jogging in a park. He was seen on video arguing with officers about his right to be out and about even though there was a movement control order (MCO) in place. He reasoned that because exercising is healthy, and the MCO is there to keep people healthy, he was doing nothing wrong. In an interview later, he maintained that he was on his own and not endangering anyone. Netizens in Malaysia, however, have condemned his actions.
The doctor actually has a like- minded ally in Lord Sumption, halfway across the world in Britain. The former Supreme Court judge spoke on national radio there, saying that the police “have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country – which are not contrary to the regulations – simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to”.
So who is right?
Let me make one thing clear. I do not believe that these people are stupid, in the sense that they don’t understand the threat posed by Covid-19 and the rationale of the MCO. Rather, they believe that despite all this, they are exceptions to the rule. It’s what somebody with a sense of entitlement would think.
The cardiologist clearly understands medicine much better than most people, so he is confident in his assessment of the risk of him infecting others and being infected. But when the good doctor appeared in court earlier this week, he wasn’t charged with not understanding medicine. He was charged with “obstructing a public servant in discharge of his functions” and also with contravening the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Regulation. Basically, the officer was trying to do his job. And his job was to keep people at home wherever possible. Because that’s what the health professionals believe is the best way to reduce or stop the transmission of Covid-19..
It’s also important to be careful of exceptions. If only one person walks around the field in front of their house, then the risk is low. But if a second person sees that one person walking around and they want to walk as well, then that increases the risk. And if two people are seen walking outside, well, the idea that the MCO doesn’t really matter becomes a contagious one.
We must accept that we are living in extraordinary times. And extraordinary times require an extraordinary reaction. But it must be within the rule of law.
Lord Sumption makes an important point, that we don’t want a police state where “the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes”. But we don’t have that in Malaysia. The doctor has pleaded not guilty in front of the magistrate, and now can plead his case.
Perhaps the real question is, is the MCO worth it? How many lives are we saving by giving up our freedoms, exactly?
The report by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (Mier) projects that with the MCO in place, Malaysia will record a total of almost 9,000 infected cases, with a peak of 5,070 active cases on April 12. Assuming a mortality rate of 1.5%, that would be over 100 fatalities by the end of April.
The report doesn’t make comparisons with what could have happened without an MCO. However, the US administration has noted that without any mitigation steps, the death toll from Covid-19 there may be as high as 2.2 million, but if they can get interventions in place, it will drop to 100,000 people. If the same held true in Malaysia, we would be looking at 20 times more deaths, or thousands more dead, without the MCO, and that’s assuming infections don’t flare up again.
From an economic perspective, perhaps thousands of deaths is a small price to pay for the country to keep moving forward.
You might even argue that a “wrecked economy” puts even more lives in danger. People will lose their jobs, others their life savings, and life for some will go from hard to on the brink.
Mier provides projections of how bad the economy could get. In the worst case scenario, Malaysia’s GDP in 2020 will shrink 2.9% compared with 2019. Yet, I’m pretty proud that Malaysia didn’t seem to think twice when the choice was between saving lives and saving the economy. Mier’s best case scenario for Malaysia remarkably posits a small year-on-year GDP growth of 1.57%.
If people have the discipline to do what’s necessary now, and we emerge from this relatively unscathed, I think it will lead to increased confidence. Not confidence that we won’t get infected. Or confidence that our rights should override public good. But a confidence that if we work together, for each other, we can rebuild Malaysia and get back on track by the end of next year.
In short, the confidence to be a better version of ourselves.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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