WHEN John’s daughter tested positive for Covid-19, the family was understandably fearful and concerned.
These feelings turned into hurt and anger when they discovered that their unit number was disclosed on the noticeboard of the condominium.
That was in November last year. John’s daughter has since recovered but the cold treatment from fellow residents continues.
This incident underscores the need for property managers to be properly trained when dealing with a crisis such as a pandemic in strata residences.
They include condominiums, public flats and serviced apartments.
John said some residents staying in the same condominium refused to enter the lift when he and his family members were inside one, while shoppers at a mini market hurried away upon seeing them.
Lawyer Saraswathy Shirke Deo said many joint management body (JMB) or management committee (MC) members were unaware that it was an offence to disclose details such as the floor and unit number of Covid-19 patients.
She said doing so has led to several former patients taking legal action against their building management for the “discrimination” they faced from other residents.
She, however, said this could prove to be a “very ineffective remedy due to the exceptionally high burden of proof”.
“You have to prove that you are indeed being discriminated. That person whom you accused of avoiding you could simply say that he or she was actually heading to a different place. It would be a case of your word against theirs, ” she pointed out.
Malaysian Institute of Property and Facility Managers president Adzman Shah Mohd Ariffin advised both parties to resolve such disputes amicably without going to court, in the interest of preserving harmony.
“They can also consult the Kuala Lumpur City Hall strata community mediation centre, if necessary, ” he said.
But if a resident insists on going to court, Adzman Shah said the property management should notify its insurance company and seek legal advice.
“Based on that advice, they should be able to determine the action needed and the remedy sought by the resident, ” he elaborated.
But what if JMBs and MCs were pressured to disclose details about fellow residents who had contracted Covid-19?
Adzman Shah reminded building managements that they were legally bound under the Personal Data Protection Act 2010 (Act 709) and Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) and therefore, should not bow to such pressure.
“The JMBs and MCs should only inform residents on which common areas are being disinfected.
“They should not disclose details of any resident or private unit, ” he said.
Property management company Henry Butcher Malaysia (Mont’Kiara) Sdn Bhd executive director Low Hon Keong said proper communication was key in managing Covid-19 cases in high-rises.
“A lot of this has to do with soft skills.
“Being transparent is a must, but the privacy of those involved must also be protected.
“Circulars should be issued without disclosing the identity of people living in specific units, ” he said, adding that it was important to educate residents not to stigmatise neighbours who contracted Covid-19.
Low said the management must sanitise areas that were visited by Covid-19 patients.
“A proper record of sanitisation exercises must also be kept for reference, ” he said.
National House Buyers Association honorary secretary-general Datuk Chang Kim Loong said the pandemic showed the need for property managers to improve their communication and crisis management skills.
This, he said, included alerting relevant authorities when coronavirus cases were detected, displaying appropriate notices for residents and handling matters pertaining to home quarantine.
“This is because no one really knows how long this pandemic will last or when the next transmissible disease will break out, ” noted Chang.
He stressed that provision of essential services such as utilities, security and cleaning must not be disrupted.
While some JMBs and MCs are embroiled in disputes with their residents, one in Taman Desa Petaling is showing the way things should be done.
When Covid-19 cases were detected and some residents were on home quarantine in January this year, the committee sent them a fruit basket with a get-well note.
Meanwhile, posters containing useful hotlines to various organisations for residents to talk about their problems were put up in common areas.
Committee president Malar Ayawoo said they also regularly checked up on affected residents via phone to offer support.
“We understand that it is a very mentally and emotionally challenging time for them.
“For some, their extended families live elsewhere, so neighbours are the immediate people they can reach out to.
“We want them to know that we are here for them, ” she said, adding that the committee also helped to buy groceries for those affected.
Malar admitted that some residents pressured the committee to disclose the floor and unit number where Covid-19 cases were discovered.
Committee member and former president Dhevandhiran Sanggaran said they decided against it as this could lead to stigmatisation of those infected.
“The key thing to remember is that these people are our neighbours and members of our community.
“We should treat them exactly how we would like to be treated if we were in their shoes, ” he said.
Malar said the committee was resolute in its stand not to disclose details of residents who contracted Covid-19.
“We explained to all residents that we have to give space to those infected to recover and heal emotionally.
“If we disclose their details, then future patients may be reluctant to inform us of their status, ” she said, highlighting that the common areas of the three blocks comprising 715 units were sanitised every day.
Coronavirus-positive residents are not the only ones being stigmatised.
Security personnel and cleaners, many of whom are foreigners, often face the same experience.
Malar said the committee gave an extra allowance to their guards and cleaners in January.
“The guards sent food and parcels to the Covid-19-positive residents’ units while the cleaners collected their household rubbish.
“They are frontliners too, ” she said.
JMBs and MCs also have a role to play in helping residents maintain their mental health during a movement control order, the stakeholders emphasised.
Adzman Shah said those living in smaller units are more vulnerable to stress and depression, especially during the MCO.
“In stratified residential buildings, many shared facilities are closed during this period which further limits communal interaction.
“It is important for heads of households to recognise signs of stress and depression among family members and take appropriate action, ” he said.
He called on building management not to be overzealous in imposing new rules in light of the ongoing pandemic and adopt a more empathetic approach instead.
Malar said her committee began restructuring maintenance fee payments for residents whose income had dropped, to help ease their financial worries.
“We received a number of requests from residents who were struggling to pay their maintenance fees.
“We decided to waive the 10% late payment charge and allow them to pay by instalment, ” she said.
Civil servant Hamzah Abdullah, 36, who lives in an apartment in Bukit Antarabangsa, Ampang in Selangor, said in times like this, communal care was important.
“Knowing they have a contact person or someone in the building they can call in case of emergency, will help reduce the feeling of isolation experienced by many Covid-19 patients, ” he said.
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