Contradictheory: We're all adults and can handle a crisis, you know

  • Living
  • Monday, 06 Jul 2020

Patients being brought out from the ward that had caught fire at Hospital Sultanah Aminah in Johor Baru on June 28,2020. All patients were evacuated and transferred to a nearby hospital.

At a recent press conference, Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that "People's acceptance of the government's actions received recognition in a global survey where Malaysia was ranked among the top five countries in the world, with the highest public approval."

Of course, my reaction was, “Really?” Naturally, we would expect a government representative to highlight positive news about his government, so I think a little scepticism is fair. So I looked around to check. Guess what? Malaysia is ranked second in a sample of 22 countries around the world when it comes to approval of the government's handling of the pandemic, according to a poll by YouGov. As at June 22,96% of Malaysians believed the government has handled the Covid-19 crisis “very” or “somewhat” well. In comparison, 97% in Vietnam approved, 88% in Taiwan, 87% in Australia, and 81% in Singapore. In sharp contrast, US approval was at 41%.

In fact, confidence in the United States shows a steady decline from late March, when it was 53%. This may be initially surprising given that you would expect governments to learn to do a better job over time. But if you follow the news, it’s not surprising at all. Efforts by the US President to raise confidence in the country’s handling of the pandemic has just continually backfired. For example, in March, Donald Trump likened Covid-19 to the “regular flu”, and said that regular flu caused 36,000 deaths in a year. In April, he said he thought Covid-19-related deaths would eventually be “substantially under” 100,000. In May, he revised it again, saying numbers “could reach 100,000”. As at July 5,2020, there are 132,374 deaths due to Covid-19 in the United States. If there is a room in the White House where adults are making decisions, the president doesn’t seem to be there.

Compare this with the Malaysian situation. We are a much smaller country, so naturally we would expect fewer number of deaths. But what is important is how the problem was relayed to the public, and how we responded to it.

The first projection I saw of cases in Malaysia was produced by the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research in March. It forecasted that, if left unchecked, the number of active Covid-19 cases would reach a peak of about 5,000 in early April. (The maximum number of concurrent active cases would determine how many places would be needed in hospitals.) This timeline was corroborated by the World Health Organisation, which agreed that the peak was likely to be in mid-April. Health director-general (DG) Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah continually referred to this point during his press briefings, at all times using the timeline as a warning that we need to be alert and prepared. As he often said, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst”.

In fact, the peak number of active cases in Malaysia came about on April 5,2020, with 2,596 cases – approximately half what the initial projections predicted. This is often used as evidence to show that Malaysia has managed the Covid-19 crisis well.

But the crucial thing is that the DG at no point dismissed the danger or tried to play up the idea that things will be OK if you trust the government. Rather, the responsibility was thrust upon the public to avoid the three Cs (crowded places, confined spaces, close contact) and to practise the three Ws (wash your hands, wear a mask, and heed warnings). In short, we the public were treated like adults. We were empowered with responsibility, and when positive results finally appeared, we felt like we were part of the solution.

Compare this with another issue that the Health Ministry has to contend with now: The June 28,2020, fire at Hospital Sultanah Aminah in Johor. The fire was successfully brought under control, there were no fatalities and Health Minister Datuk Dr Adham Baba praised hospital staff who had acted quickly, given their experience with a similar incident at the hospital previously. He was in fact referring to another fire at the same hospital in 2016. However, then, six patients died.

Naturally, at the time an Independent Committee of Inquiry was appointed by the government to investigate the fire. The report was completed in 2018 and was to be presented to the Cabinet before being released to the public.

Are the causes of the recent fire somehow related to the previous tragic fire of 2016? Have lessons been learned and can we do better? It’s hard to say because as far as I can tell, the independent report has not yet been made available. Fortunately, it’s good to see that the call for it to be disclosed has come from both sides of the political aisle, from Johor Baru MP Akmal Nasir (PKR) and Pekan MP Datuk Seri Najib Razak (Umno).

A local journalist who had read the report wrote an article about it in March 2020. Unfortunately, I am conflicted whether to share what she had written given that on June 26,2020 (two days before the recent fire), she tweeted that she was being investigated under the Penal Code and Official Secrets Act (OSA) over that and related articles (police have since said she’s being investigated under the Communications and Multimedia Act, not the OSA). And there’s the nub of it: I am conflicted because I am worried I might be punished. I feel like that kid in school who stays quiet when a classmate is punished, thinking, “I don’t want that to be me”. And, truth be told, I don’t feel like an adult.

In reality, when things go wrong, we don’t really expect anyone to have all the answers. What is remarkable about the Covid-19 crisis in Malaysia is that we somehow aligned our objectives, gathering information from multiple sources, with the government formulating policy that took all these into account, resulting in action willingly taken by practically all those involved.

If we could do that during the bleakest crisis with great results, then why not try it again?

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 The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Dzof Azmi , Covid-19 , healthcare , hospitals


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