THERE are times when the milk has spilled, and there truly is no reason to cry over it.
This is not one of those times.
There is no reliable indicator yet when a vaccine for Covid-19 will be out, and given what we hear about mutations and so on, a single vaccine might not be a once-and-for-all solution to this pandemic.
There is thus good reason to believe that this will not be the last time we enter into a conditional movement control order (MCO), or something akin to it – in other words, it’s not the last glass of milk that may spill.
So, we must always seek to learn from past mistakes, and work triply hard not to repeat them.
We all know how badly Covid-19 is affecting the nation. It is a time of crisis, in which the government has a vital role to play, and the importance of this role truly cannot be understated.
Good decision making, good policies, and good execution will save countless lives, and protect Malaysians from the very worst of this pandemic.
Bad decision making, bad policies, and bad execution will literally cost lives – lives that can never be replaced.
The latest conditional MCO raised several red flags about whether the government is learning from past experiences, and truly investing every possible resource into managing this pandemic effectively.
There have been debates about whether state-wide MCOs are necessary in the first place at this stage of the pandemic, especially given the potential economic cost.
While these are legitimate questions that do deserve to be discussed carefully, I will not focus on those discussions today. For whatever it’s worth, I personally have no qualms about the decision to implement state-wide conditional MCOs at this stage.
Instead, I hope to take a closer look at the manner in which the conditional MCO was planned, announced, and implemented.
We can only hope that the authorities do not take decisions of this magnitude lightly.
Taking these measures seriously means doing proper A to Z planning, communicating decisions with the utmost clarity, and ensuring consistency of implementation.
There are a few clear signs that this is not what happened.
At time of writing, it has been maybe 65 hours or so since the conditional MCO was announced.
One key announcement was that “inter-district” travel is now banned.
Personally, I feel that such a measure is arguably reasonable.
What is unreasonable however is that in those 65 hours, there has yet to be a clear, unequivocal definition of which definition of “district” the authorities mean in this case.
There are several possibilities. There are health districts, police districts, local council districts, and so on.
To add to the problem, I daresay many Malaysians are unaware of exactly where the borders of their “district” (however defined) are, as this is not generally relevant info to many people in their day-to-day lives pre-pandemic.
It is my belief that a good majority of Malaysians are perfectly willing to do their part, however difficult, to combat the pandemic and flatten the curve – including following whatever rules are set by the authorities.
But one must surely ask: how can one possibly follow the rules if one is unsure what the rules are?
In the lead up to the conditional MCO, I’m sure many experienced an explosion on their various WhatsApp groups, debating what exactly constituted “inter-district” travel.
Some discussions were heated, exacerbated perhaps by the fact that MCOs are generally stressful, anxiety-inducing things to begin with.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, the government has a unique, key role to play in managing this pandemic – a role that in many ways cannot be replicated or filled by anyone else.
We have already seen incredible NGOs and groups of Malaysians who stepped in to fill in many service provision gaps during the first MCO, providing aid to some of the most vulnerable populations in Malaysia.
Non-governmental actors can step in to fill those roles, but they cannot step in to define rules that are not clearly defined by the government.
I saw many people taking to social media to explain what a district is; I eventually realised that all these people were not “authorities” on the subject, but were in effect (despite their very best intentions) merely offering their own personal opinion and interpretation as to which definition of “district” was meant.
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To make things worse in our age of disinformation, in the early stages, people kept forwarding outdated infographics from March saying that all of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor was considered “one district”.
Some felt that the only way to determine where these borders were was to actually try and drive out and see which roadblock would stop you where. Some suggested phoning your local authorities to determine exactly where district borders are.
Firstly, should we expose ourselves to fines and scoldings by the police at roadblocks just to obtain such basic information?
Secondly, should we inundate already overworked authorities with the same question from hundreds or thousands of callers?
Thirdly, can we be assured that all local authorities will provide consistent answers with regards to where district borders are?
If all local authorities had a reliable source with regards to the definition of “district”, I feel that by now the public would also already be aware of the same source of reliable information.
Was all this anxiety and confusion truly necessary?
Exactly how much effort and resources would have been required on the part of the government to solve this problem?
I believe it would have taken one simple sentence from the same authorities that announced the conditional MCO to solve this problem completely. For example, something like: “Inter-district travel is banned. ‘Districts’ in this case refers to health districts as defined by the Health Ministry.”
One sentence, problem solved.
If the government wanted to be even more helpful, they only needed to publish one single map, which clearly shows the district borders they meant to enforce, overlaid over a simple road map of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya.
Is it my imagination, or are these two exceedingly simple measures truly, truly not in the least bit difficult to do?
Some like to “scold” Malaysians, implying that they are an unruly, disobedient lot, obsessed about their own convenience, and stressing themselves out for nothing.
Once again, I believe that the majority of my fellow Malaysians are 100% willing to follow the rules in order to break the chain and flatten the curve once again.
But no matter how pliant, obedient, and responsible we are, one simply cannot effectively follow rules that are not clear – however much we may want to.
So many have already complained about how it is politicians that have brought about this second wave, and the double standards that seem to exist with regards to the implementation of Covid-19 containment measures.
I won’t flog that particular dead horse here, but I think that especially given all this criticism, the government should redouble its efforts to make sure it does its part to fight this pandemic, given how the rest of Malaysia has time and again successfully done their part.
I beg of you, start by being absolutely clear about your directives, communicating them effectively, and implementing them consistently.
NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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