SINCE the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Home Ministry and its agencies have been in the forefront of combating the spread of the virus. After more than a year, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin says that public cooperation is more crucial than ever to curb infection.
The ministry’s agencies include the Royal Malaysia Police, Malay-sian Maritime Enforcement Agency, Immigration Department and the National Registration Department, and they all play vital roles during this pandemic, says Hamzah.
“All four agencies are supplemented by Rela [the People’s Volunteer Corps] so efforts to ensure compliance with the SOP are received well by the rakyat, ” he said in an exclusive interview with The Star last week.
“During the first movement control order, phase one last year, the police was the lead agency in ensuring that the SOP was adhered to.
“By right it was supposed to have been relatively easy [to ensure compliance] as the majority of the people were scared and stayed at home.
“However, clusters [of infections] began emerging, such as the Tabligh cluster in Sri Petaling [in Kuala Lumpur]. The police were instructed to track down the cluster – and mind you, there was no MySejahtera app at that time, ” he says.
Without the app, it was no easy task for the police to identify the close contacts of the people in the clusters.
“The police conducted contact tracing all over the country, to the extent of going to people’s homes.
“We had to inform the close contacts about measures to be taken to curb the spread of the virus. Alhamdulillah, we succeeded, ” Hamzah says.
Stopping the prison clustersDuring phase two, some time in May 2020, there was a significant increase in the number of infected cases.
“We realised we had a problem as there were many arrivals from overseas. We had to work harder and be firmer in enforcing the law. It required coordination with all agencies, including the armed forces, ” he says.
The National Task Force was formed in May 2020 to pool the resources of various agencies to curb the illegal entry of undocumented immigrants, Hamzah explains.
“During Ops Benteng, we focused on keeping away illegal immigrants from our shores and detaining existing undocumented immigrants in the country.
“All the efforts contributed to lowering the number of infected cases in the country, ” he says.
However, infection clusters then began emerging in several prisons due to overcrowding.
“The prisons are only supposed to accommodate 45, 000 people but it reached 65, 000 at one point last year.
“To solve this problem, we made the decision to introduce satellite prison sites with the SOP in place, ” he says.
At the satellite prisons, new detainees were given swab tests and then quarantined and only released into the general population if they tested negative, Hamzah explains.
From December 2020 until last month, the satellite prisons – which have a high turnover rate – received 16, 866 detainees.
People still flouting the SOP
It has been a hard slog for the ministry for over a year now.
“During the first MCO last year, we had to adapt quickly as the virus was new to us. We did not know about variants and such, ” he says.
After the current wave peaked at over 9, 000 cases, a full lockdown was initiated, with the ministry stepping up its efforts even more.
“The number of cases is going down slowly as the people have started to realised that they must be disciplined and not rely on enforcement efforts alone, ” Hamzah says.
And yet, there are still those who flout the SOP.
“I received a report that a factory in Balakong [in Selangor] was not adhering to the SOP on June 2 so I immediately went down to inspect it.
“The factory had been allowed to operate as it supposedly produced daily essential goods but it was actually a furniture-making factory. The factory operator had lied.
“Unfortunately, there are other similar cases nationwide, ” he says.
Empathy for frontliners
Frontliners are human beings too, says Hamzah and many have been infected.
“Police personnel and officers have been infected with Covid-19. Think of the effect it has on them and their family members.
“Anxiety and fear are common among those in other agencies under the ministry too, ” he says.
He appeals to the public to value the sacrifices of frontliners by being truthful and complying with the SOP.
“When going through a roadblock, show all the proper documents and follow the instructions of the police. This will lead to faster checks, ” he says, giving an example.
The resources of frontliners, especially the police, are stretched thin – daily Covid-19-related operations require 55, 000 police personnel nationwide, Hamzah says.
“When police personnel are infected, it weakens the strength of the force.
“On top of that, police duties are not only about Covid-19, they have to continue with the task of investigating and curbing crime, including stopping fake news.
“It is sad that people don’t see this.
“The least we can do is understand that stopping the spread of Covid-19 is a collective responsibility. If everyone plays their part, I believe we can solve this problem faster, ” he says.
“Ultimately, they are in charge of every aspect of security in the country. They have to face every kind of hardship while out in the field, be it scorching heat or thunderstorms.
“So baseless attacks or fake news will dishearten those out in the field.
“In short, don’t take the police for granted, ” he says.
Hamzah also calls on the people to help the ministry by reporting SOP violations.
“For example, if you know of a factory that isn’t supposed to operate, let us know. I expect the factory to be inspected within 24 hours.
“We need the cooperation of the public in this so that we can enjoy a victory against Covid-19 quicker, ” he says.
There are signs that people are taking at least the travel ban part of the SOP a little more seriously now – Hamzah says the number of applications for inter-state travel has dropped over the past few months: In late April, 43, 000 applications were approved with the number going down to 30, 000 soon after. Since the total lockdown began, only 12, 000 applications have been approved.
“It shows that the people are complying with the restrictions while enforcement agencies are being stricter in approving such travel, ” he says.
Once the latest phase of lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Hamzah says he immediately called for a meeting of the ministry’s top leadership and agency heads, including the Inspector-General of Police.
“Coordination among all the agencies is important as I do not want them to work in silos. All agencies must assist each other in this endeavour, ” he says.
Despite the collaboration, though, there have been discrepancies in SOP enforcement. Hamzah says he’s aware of this.
“When such issues arise, I have instructed the police to issue immediate statements and rectify the matter.
“When a regulation is introduced, instructions are given at every level, down to the men and women on the ground. However, individuals have differing perceptions, thus mistakes are bound to happen.
“I have told the police if any mistakes happen, apologise and cancel the compound. The matter can be solved in a simple manner, there is no need to politicise it, ” he stresses.
The ministry as well as its agencies have 24-hour operations rooms to assist the people, Hamzah says.
“If people mistakenly call the wrong agency, they should be assisted properly and referred to the correct one instead of the matter ending there.
“For example, if someone calls Immigration but his problem is actually a National Registration Department matter, the officer should inform the NRD.
“Subsequently, the NRD will contact the caller and assist them properly.
“We understand the predicaments faced by the people and we will assist to the best of our ability, ” he says.
Battling the virus personally
Hamzah recalls his own harrowing experience of being infected with Covid-19.
“I was quarantined on Dec 30 as I was a close contact of my political secretary. I did a test on Jan 8 and it tested negative, so my pink bracelet was cut.
“However, three days later I went for another test as I had to attend a meeting. This time it came back positive despite not experiencing any symptoms.”
Hamzah was admitted to the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.
“I was all right for the first two days in hospital. However, I experienced fatigue on the third day and coughing on the fourth day. I felt very weak on the fifth day.
“I only got a fever on the seventh day. I know there was a rumour that I was admitted to
the ICU, so let me confirm for the first time that it is true. It happened on the eighth day.
“I was in agony as if I was about to explode. At that time, my liver enzymes were bad, I had a fever and my oxygen level was low, ” he says.
Hamzah had a very scary moment when he collapsed in the toilet.
“I woke up and thought I was dead as all I could see was darkness. Then I glimpsed a light from a nearby lamp and realised I was not dead.
“I pulled myself up and walked back to my bed and slept until the next morning. When the doctor came for my check up, he informed me that everything was cleared within 24 hours, ” he says.
It took him a few months to fully recover, Hamzah says, adding that he had to do some physiotherapy.
“I appeal to all to follow the SOP because this new variant of the virus is much worse.
“The virus does not discriminate, anyone can be infected, even ministers, ” he says.
Hamzah says his recovery has given him a second wind, driving him to do the right thing for the nation.
“Let us help each other in stopping the spread of the virus, ” he says.