Have Malaysians learned to be kinder since Covid-19?

There are employers who have accepted Covid-19 as a 'new norm', conveniently ignoring the truth that catching it is still serious and rescinding permission to work from home, insisting people come into the office even if they have a fever. Have we learned nothing from the past two years? — Pixabay.com

So it finally happened. After two years and four months of trepidation and perturbation, I finally rejoined mainstream society – and promptly caught Covid-19.

I’m not denying it’s partially my fault. I’m not even completely sure how I got it. It could have been at a child’s birthday party, dinner with an old friend, an indoor press event, or from my daughter via her classmate.

On the morning I was due to fly to Indonesia for work, I had to cancel the flight and quarantine myself.

I wasn’t too worried. One advantage of getting infected relatively late compared with the rest of the world is that we now know a lot more about the virus than we did before.

Given that I was boostered, and have no significant underlying medical conditions, I knew my chances of being hospitalised were probably less than 1%.

Two years ago it would have been worse. The chances of a patient deteriorating then was closer to 4%, and I would have had to isolate myself in a quarantine centre for two weeks. Now we know the period of infectivity is relatively short, and I could be out and about in as few as four days.

But what if I’m that unfortunate 1%? How will I know if I’m on the mend or if I need to admit myself?

That’s where technology comes into play. MySejahtera is better known as the app we previously used to check-in when we entered public and commercial premises; now, it is still what is used to update the Health Ministry when you’re Covid-19 positive.

The system was automatically updated with my new positive status when I took the test at the clinic. The app on my phone then reminded me to check in with the ministry twice a day and record my body temperature, my oxygen saturation level (the SpO2 level on fitness trackers) and whether I had any symptoms.

And just in case I might forget to do so, I would get a phone call every morning with a recorded voice message reminder.

For me, this is an example of how high tech implemented in a relatively simple way works really well.

The logic behind the system is fairly simple: a set of online forms, data about when I fell ill and what my symptoms are, and some code that triggers the appropriate events in response. It’s something most 10-year-olds today would understand if they have ever written an “if-then-else” computer program.

In sharp contrast, the app supplied by the airline company whose flight I was trying to cancel was completely high-tech and cutting edge – while being practically useless for my needs.

I longed for the really old days, when if you had a problem with your flight, you could call the service centre and wait to talk to a member of staff about it.

Then customer service systems got more “intelligent”. Instead of connecting you to a person right off the bat, they would give you a list of options that you had to choose from (“If you want to cancel a flight, please press 1”, etc, etc). Paradoxically, this actually takes longer than talking to a human being, as you have to wait for the recording to go through all the choices.

The airline I was flying with now uses an even more advanced support system. It’s an online chat helpdesk which makes it seem like you are talking to somebody through WhatsApp or Messenger.

But the problem is that it isn’t really a person at the other end. It’s a clever program that interprets your natural English input, parses it, and then outputs the most appropriate response.

So when I wrote, “I need to cancel my flight this afternoon because I’m Covid positive”, it told me I couldn’t cancel a flight so close to the flight time. In frustration, I then typed, “I want to talk to a human being”, which then triggered the response that it’s sorry it hasn’t been able to help me, and an attempt will be made to put me in touch with a customer rep.

But although it’s online and electronic, it doesn’t mean you get to a human being straight away. Instead, you have to wait in a virtual queue.

In my case it was 50 people long. After half an hour, it’s down to about 20 people and, presumably, the countdown will get down to zero. But in almost every interaction I had with the system, it would suddenly hang and reset, and I needed to rejoin the queue, which would then be 150 people long.

It took me four days to finally get through and get proper confirmation that the company had received my certified positive test and could cancel my flight. It took another three days before they asked if it was OK to give me the refund in credit (which needs to be used within two years) and not cash; after I asked them exactly what that would entail, they then just executed the crediting a week after without actually answering my question.

I had to sit in front of the phone, give it my full attention and refresh the screen when needed, making sure the call didn’t disconnect to get even that done. But then I was in quarantine, so I had some spare time on my hands.

One thing I hoped would have happened as a result of this pandemic is that we would have learned to care for one another a little more.

Certainly we saw some evidence of that in the #KitaJagaKita (we care for each other) movement. And I do see it in the MySejahtera app, in that enough care was taken in its design that I felt confident enough that if my symptoms did worsen significantly, the system would correctly alert me to seek medical help immediately.

But then there are employers, organisations – and airline app developers – who have accepted Covid-19 as a “new norm”, and they conveniently ignore the truth that falling ill with it is still something that should be taken seriously. They are rescinding permission to work from home, they are insisting people come into the office even if they have a fever.

And while they don’t have an obligation to help those who fall sick (especially when it annoyingly impacts things like the company’s bottom line and profits), if they really believe that that’s the case, then what have we really learned after the last two years?

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 lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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