Human Writes: Covid-19 is giving us the chance to choose a better future


  • Living
  • Monday, 11 May 2020

Police officers wearing protective suits picking up an illegal immigrant from an apartment in Kuala Lumpur under enhanced lockdown during the movement control order imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Malaysia. — Reuters

If there was ever a time for the human race to work together as one, this is it. We are standing at the edge of a precipice that threatens the lives of millions, not just from Covid-19 but also from climate change. Clawing our way back to a safe place necessitates that humankind finds solutions that work for all of us.

We know full well this virus doesn’t stop at borders. It doesn’t care two hoots if you’re poor or rich or black or white. It doesn’t give a damn if you’re Chinese or American or Malaysian. The virus just cares for human cells, where it locks onto the ACE2 protein.

We need a common front for humanity to win this war. When we argue – about whose fault it is, and who is spreading the disease, and who deserves help and who doesn’t, and whatever other hateful diatribe – we give the virus opportunities. We open the door for it to advance.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen plenty of ugly scenes. Outside of China, anything Chinese has been a target. There is a whole Wiki page of incidents against Chinese-looking people. The US President has been intent on excoriating China.

The blame game is actually no surprise. It’s often “dirty” migrants or the poor that get blamed in epidemics. In medieval Europe, hundreds of Jewish communities blamed for the plague were burnt alive. Chinese migrants were blamed for smallpox and cholera outbreaks in California in the late 19th century. Syphilis was named after other nations – the “French disease” or “Italian disease”, or, “the Portuguese disease” in Japan – but never one’s own people.

Lately, I’ve heard many concerns here about Covid-19 spreading among migrants. Cramped living quarters do put them more at risk. But as yet, there have been no clusters among foreign workers in Malaysia. And they’ve been screened continuously – in fact, it is now mandatory.

On May Day, May 1, in Malaysia, hundreds of undocumented workers and refugees were hauled up in raids in Kuala Lumpur in Covid-19 control efforts. Some arrested included families with very young children – the United Nations (UN) has urged their release.

The UN added: “The fear of arrest and detention may push these vulnerable population groups further into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment....”

Driving a disease underground doesn’t help control it. We know this only too well. For years in Malaysia, drug users were routinely rounded up in raids and arrested. HIV infections skyrocketed. It was not until we began offering drug users help without the threat of arrest that they came forward. Nowadays there are relatively few HIV infections among drug users.

We need to track, test and treat every Covid-19 case, not just to control the spread. Any case, anywhere, matters because every case offers the virus trillions of opportunities to mutate. And it could mutate to become more deadly. In the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, the virus mutated to become more deadly in the second wave. It killed perfectly healthy adults in just 24 hours after the first signs of illness.

Today’s pandemic is pushing us towards the UN goal of universal health coverage. Providing healthcare for all is a huge challenge. But it’s not an impossible dream. It’s actually a necessary dream.

How can we talk about preventing infection through handwashing when three billion people do not even have handwashing facilities with soap and water at home? Two billion people also don’t even have a toilet. This is the 21st century. Isn’t it time we ensure all people have such basic services, which would also address other infectious diseases?

We need a reset that prioritises people and the planet. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. It can. This planet has enough for everyone – we just don’t have enough for everyone’s greed.

At present, wealth lies in the hands of billionaires. The top 26 richest people had the same net worth as the poorer 50% of the global population (3.8 billion) in 2019, according to Oxfam, a charity fighting poverty. Billionaires and big corporations are using loopholes to pay pitifully small amounts of tax. In Malaysia, the top 1% own 15% of the wealth, according to the UN’s 2019 Malaysia Human Development report.

Inequality has been linked in studies to many of our social ills – drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, obesity and children’s literacy. It’s time we address it.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that radical changes to our lifestyles are possible. We really don’t need to go shopping or go on trips or drive our cars as much. We can prioritise this planet – if we choose to. The crisis has forced us to remember that we humans are not invincibleb but are dictated by biology and bound by the laws of nature. We are at a watershed moment in history, at a crossroads where there’s a chance to build a new future. I hope we take it.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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