Managing an unprecedented pandemic


MCO: 'We must find a common ground, as we did before, to balance the importance of protecting and saving lives, and opening the economy to sustain our livelihoods'. — KT GOH/The Star

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein shares his perspective on three topics: managing Covid-19, politics, and international affairs in a series of three articles to appear in The Star this week. This is the first in the series.

IT has been over a year since the first case of Covid-19 reached our shores. As pandemic fatigue sets in, I can see Malaysians are becoming restless and understandably so as it has been just over 450 days since the implementation of the first movement control order. As we continue to navigate one of the most difficult periods many of us have faced, I always remind myself that we must never allow our emotions to take over, as frustrated actions may lead to irrational behaviour.

While writing this being quarantined in my room, and as the nation is going through another lockdown – the feeling is very different from last March. Back then, personally and as a nation, we knew nothing at all regarding the pandemic, we allowed the fear of the unknown and the intolerance of uncertainty get the better of us.

'The greatest tragedy for Malaysia is if we are unable to reflect on our own mistakes and weaknesses. We must strive never to repeat them.''The greatest tragedy for Malaysia is if we are unable to reflect on our own mistakes and weaknesses. We must strive never to repeat them.'

But we picked ourselves up. We did not go into denial and quickly adapted, learning together with many other countries facing a similar unknown. I remember at that point – our priority at the Foreign Ministry was to bring our loved ones home so they didn’t face the unknown in a foreign land, to ensure they had the same experience with all of us here, in our own homes, and with our own families.

From bringing home tens of thousands of Malaysians, to focusing on sourcing basic needs such as masks, ventilators, and hospital beds from our partners globally – I’d say we have moved on. Notwithstanding Covid-19, our ties with countries around the world have strengthened and got even closer, in spite of the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

Today, 450 days on – we must look back and reflect. The unknown is no longer as mysterious as it was last year. Our focus then was to strike the right balance between lives and livelihoods, which has always been central to our efforts. However, as time went on, we may have lost that delicate balance between prioritising public health and our economic interests.

From my observations as Foreign Minister and interactions with my counterparts, especially on sharing our respective experiences and best practices, I would like to sincerely make three simple suggestions on what we should focus on to bring us out of this “pandemic paradox”.

MCO, vaccines and testing

Firstly, let’s address the current movement control order. We must find a common ground, as we did before, to balance the importance of protecting and saving lives, and opening the economy to sustain our livelihoods.

As it is, there should be no more changes and we must remain consistent on our existing SOP. Unnecessary and reactive changes will put everything we have achieved thus far at risk.

Second is on our vaccination rollout. Malaysians were initially confident in the government’s proactive approach to set plans for phased vaccinations, and were hopeful at reports of our early success in securing supplies. But we must also understand why Malaysians are asking for a faster rollout – considering the recent rise in cases, fear has begun to set in, triggering frustration and agitation.

Around the world, we have seen this fear eventually fade as countries ramp up vaccinations. In the United Kingdom and the United States for example, Covid-19 just doesn’t instil the same fear as it did months ago. They have moved on, with positivity and optimism.

In view of this, we may need to seriously consider expanding our vaccine arsenal to allay the peoples’ concerns. Thus far, Malaysia has only approved the use of Pfizer, Sinovac and AstraZeneca. However, many other nations have approved other vaccines in their rollout plans. Even the World Health Organisation has listed Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Sinopharm for worldwide emergency use. Surely they can’t all be wrong.

Vaccines: '... Consider expanding our vaccine arsenal to allay the peoples’ concerns.'  — APVaccines: '... Consider expanding our vaccine arsenal to allay the peoples’ concerns.' — AP

I understand the relevant authorities’ need to carry out the necessary due diligence, but we cannot follow normal procedures under abnormal circumstances. Our agencies must be in line with other international bodies in issuing emergency approvals quickly.

Many of Malaysia’s friends around the world have also offered to help but this is where bureaucracy remains a key barrier to implementation. Offers of assistance must be met with a sense of eagerness, not reluctance. It essentially boils down to doing things right, versus doing the right thing. But the burden remains on us in the ministry on whether to accept or refuse assistance. Should these offers not be met with enthusiasm and positivity – therein lies the risk of jeopardising our diplomatic relations or, worse, our nation’s integrity on the global stage. I feel this is not a risk worth taking.

Thirdly, we need to pursue greater mass testing. Health experts and political leaders are also calling for mass testing and rightfully so. Mass testing allows us to test, trace and isolate quickly – to better manage outbreaks all over the country. But to achieve this we need a plan, to either increase our lab capacities, procure more test kits, or subsidise testing for the masses.

Testing: 'Mass testing allows us to test, trace and isolate quickly – to better manage outbreaks all over the country.' —  APTesting: 'Mass testing allows us to test, trace and isolate quickly – to better manage outbreaks all over the country.' — AP

Work together

Moving forward, I believe the combination of these suggestions could serve as a transformed Covid-19 management strategy for us. An integrated approach to public health – one which combines a strict lockdown with a focus on vaccination and testing. The reality is that when more people are detected early and/or are immune, lives are protected, and death rates will dwindle. This is ultimately our main goal, a systematic transition out of the pandemic for Malaysians to return to normalcy.

But this requires a whole of government approach. We have always been well managed in the past, and this can be attributed to our uncompromising institutions. But unfortunately, our systems are so entrenched that it has rendered us somewhat inflexible at times like this. We are at war – this is an unprecedented crisis. Extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions. What we need is more agility and flexibility in our governance to adapt quickly and make fast decisions.

The greatest tragedy for Malaysia is if we are unable to reflect on our own mistakes and weaknesses. We must strive never to repeat them. If we do not change for the better, how will we be able to face even more challenges in the post-pandemic era such as new variants and mutations, the future of our children’s education, the state of our mental health, and the fate of our economy? We may not have seen the worst of it yet, but we must remain vigilant in our efforts – determined to do everything in our power to work with each other to overcome this deadly virus.

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

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