Trusted voices of the pandemic

At the fore: UPM’s Dr Malina and UM’s Dr Awang Bulgiba were sought out for their expert opinions during the pandemic.

Petaling Jaya: Two years ago, Assoc Prof Dr Malina Osman was a little-known academic with a relatively “leisurely” life.

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the epidemiologist was swept into the spotlight.

She was not alone. Many in the profession became the most sought-after experts to inform and educate the befuddled public about the novel coronavirus which came to be known as SARS-CoV-2.

She had to field questions not just from the public and the media but also from various bodies.

The Universiti Putra Malaysia expert said as academicians, they were always able to prepare and plan their routine before the pandemic.“It was a relatively leisurely life. I did not have to answer any burning questions or address matters for the sake of the nation. And I was not known to the public.

“But when the outbreak hit, I had to come forward with the relevant views in pandemic management. It was a time when the community and media could not rely solely on the Health Ministry and National Security Council for details,” she said in an interview.

At the height of the pandemic, Dr Malina became much busier, with queries coming all day long.

“They did not come just from the media but also from government departments, NGOs, institutions, workplaces, communities, associations and the public.”

Like other biostatisticians, she had to keep abreast of the ever-changing pandemic situation.

“I had to create my own data to analyse and refer to policies and updated scientific information,” she said.

The 53-year-old said she was working from home much of that time.

“There were no proper office hours and at times, I had to respond to urgent questions at night.

“At the same time, there were online classes, discussions and ongoing research to conduct.”

To top it all, the mother-of-three remembered having to manage endless household chores.

“It was a great challenge. Thankfully, I had strong support from my husband and children who understood perfectly the scope of my job, which got more intense during the pandemic.

“But the kids grumbled sometimes when I needed to postpone plans to settle urgent requests from the media,” she revealed.

Covid-19 was first detected in Malaysia on Jan 25, 2020, among three China nationals from Wuhan who were part of a group of 10 who had first travelled to Singapore from Guangzhou on Jan 20 that year.

Not long after, the first Malaysian – a 41-year-old man from Selangor – tested positive on Feb 4.

As infections rose, public health experts were flooded with media requests to shed light on the unfolding health crisis.

Dr Malina said she received an average of five to 10 media calls or messages a day.

“Hopefully, my efforts and analyses helped them in the content of their stories,” she said.

Even though there had always been warnings about the “next pandemic”, Dr Malina said she did not expect an outbreak of this scale to hit in the 21st century.

“In the past when I read about the plague in Europe, I thought that such a pandemic would never happen again in modern times. How wrong I was.

“The war against potential outbreaks of any infectious disease will continue. But with knowledge and available technology, we can face it,” she said.

For Universiti Malaya’s Prof Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, although being busy was nothing new to him, the pandemic brought a new dimension to his work.

Life was already hectic for the leading epidemiologist in his field, holding administrative positions at various levels in the university.

“Before the pandemic, epidemiology, for me, was mainly about teaching, research and student supervision.

“During the pandemic, that part of the job of an academic continued but several things were added.

“I was called upon for opinions and I found myself having to do quite a bit of analyses as the pandemic was unfolding, and a fair amount of educating and advocating for policy changes when it was clear to me that the wrong policies were being implemented,” he said.

He was also appointed by the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry to head two committees on epidemiological analyses and to offer independent opinions on vaccinations.

Dr Awang Bulgiba has also been continuously contacted by foreign media from Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia and invited to speak at Covid-19 webinars.

From this pandemic, the professor said he discovered quickly that evidence from the past did not necessarily predict the future and that adaptability has been a defining quality of good leadership during a health crisis.

“One must acknowledge that evidence may change as the situation changes rapidly during the pandemic.”

He also learned that people’s behaviours are influenced by many things including their level of understanding and the approach used to reach out to them.

“Changing policies is difficult but it can be done if you work at it hard enough and persist. It is difficult to refute evidence and numbers, if they are properly analysed and presented.

“And if you are true to yourself, offer opinions which are strictly based on science and evidence, people will recognise that non-partisan stance and are more likely to listen to you,” he said.

Dr Awang Bulgiba, who also heads the Independent Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Committee, pointed out that when he sees the results of his work resulting in favourable outcomes and changing people’s lives for the better, it makes him feel good to be an epidemiologist and glad that he chose this profession.

“The work of an epidemiologist is directed at entire populations, not just one or two individuals, so it has the potential to change society in many ways,” he added.

For youth interested in the profession, Dr Awang Bulgiba has this to say: “Not everyone finds pondering over numbers and finding patterns interesting but ‘eureka’ moments when discernible patterns emerge from the fog of data are things which turn epidemiologists into ‘rock stars’ during a pandemic.

“A critical mind and an inquiring mindset are essential.

“Also, skills and knowledge in statistics will be very helpful to an epidemiologist, especially as big data becomes ubiquitous,” he said.

The people have these “rock stars” to thank for never stopping to shine a light on a disease that has killed at least 6.23 million people and infected 512 million others so far globally.

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pandemic , Malina Osman , Awang Bulgiba


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