Our frontliners need help!

Exhausted: File photo from last year of Health Ministry frontliners taking a minute break where they can before heading back to conduct screening tests. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

IF the frontliners fall, we all fall.

It’s as simple as that.

If Malaysia’s healthcare system is overwhelmed and overrun, more and more Malaysians are going to die from Covid-19. This is a stark reality we must never turn away from.

Even if that weren’t the case, surely we have a duty to support those who are sacrificing the most in the battle against the virus.

Let’s look at some verbatim quotes by frontline doctors that have emerged in public:

One doctor at a public hospital said “... I can say that the basic amenities that are supposed to be given to us are not provided. They are supposed to provide us with on-call rooms, provide us on-call food, provide us with a proper place to at least take a break and rest before continuing to face this battle but all this have been taken away or [is] not available at the moment.

“They said there’s been a hospital budget cut so they cannot provide on-call shift meals.... When we want to take a break there is no proper place to rest and, worst of all, we can’t even have a proper meal. We already brought these issues to a higher authority (even the hospital director) but I guess our issues fell on deaf ears.

“Some of my colleagues fell into depression and started taking antidepressants. Some of us haven’t even met or visited our families or loved ones for months. We are tired, exhausted, annoyed and way past the breaking point.”

Another doctor wrote: “I see my colleagues fall down, my teammates in and out of quarantine. Most of us have fallen to burnout.”

A petition from staff at Hospital Ampang at change.org states: “We are going into real exhaustion.... With the increasing amount of healthcare workers going for quarantine or down with Covid-19 while taking care of patients, we are getting lesser manpower but the amount of patients to handle and the workload continue to pile up endlessly.

“We urge for them to help. We cannot do this alone. The medical department is severely short-

handed and on the verge of breaking down.

“We are going to hit rock bottom if the burden is not equally distributed, letting only one department handle the stress of the workload alone.”

I think I cannot possibly add anything to these real life accounts from real life doctors on the ground. If frontliners are saying they are feeling overwhelmed, this should be a red alert call to the whole nation.

The correct way to respond is for every layer of authorities and government to go into full battle stations mode, marshall all available resources, and do absolutely everything in their power to make sure those frontliners feel they are getting absolutely all the support that they need.

The wrong – and extremely, extremely dangerous – way to respond is to cover things up.

Doing so would be a Donald Trump-level crime and disservice to the truth – a disservice that, again, can lead to lives being lost, forever irreplaceable.

Frontliner Dr Ali Noor Hassan died last Monday. Authorities were quick to point out the death was “not Covid-19-related”, but one has to wonder whether the doctor’s underlying conditions would have been fatal had he not been working as hard as he was.

Are things really under control? Should the first comments about these cases coming from the authorities be ones that imply “this is not our fault”?

This culture of silence and saving face has existed in Malaysia for decades. It is not a problem of any one institution or political party. It is a dangerous and extremely toxic culture embedded in many (though certainly not all) levels of our bureaucracy.

The essence of it is, some higher ups refuse to admit how bad things are on the ground because they feel it would make them look bad as administrators and managers.

It’s really hard to put into words the importance of overturning this culture.

To such administrators and managers we say: Nobody really cares about “punishing” or “attacking” you in any way right now; all we care about is for frontliners to get all the support they need, and the whole of Malaysia is willing to pitch in to help. Just don’t stand in the way, please, or make it hard to help.

If they are hungry, we’ll happily feed them. If they need better places to rest, help us help you make that happen. If they are understaffed and under-resourced, let’s have a national discussion on how all of us can help spread the work out better.

The very, very worst thing you can do is to punish such frontliners for speaking up about what is clearly an extremely desperate situation.

We need to drastically reverse this culture and encourage the people who are sacrificing the most in the battle against Covid-19 to speak up about the reality they are facing, without fear.

We hypocritically light up bridges hailing frontline heroes or pay lip service to them when, in reality, they dare not even reveal their names to the public when trying to speak truth to power.

Surely this cannot continue.

While not a perfect country, this might be a good time to take inspiration from America’s new commitment to make a massive U-turn away from politicking to serve narrow interests, and head back to hard science, hard data, and hard truths.

We need short term fixes, but also long term structural improvements for medical personnel, in issues like better terms of service, permanent posts, and work-life balance, as has been advocated for by organisations like the Malaysian Health Coalition.

All of us need to do our part against Covid-19, especially with staying at home and keeping going out to an absolute minimum. At the same time, let frontliners speak their truths freely and without repercussion, and let us – using a whole of society approach – give them every single bit of support they need.

Nathaniel Tan and some friends have prepared an anonymous feedback form for frontliners: bit.ly/frontliners_form. He believes in #BangsaMalaysia #BantuMembantu and can be reached at nat@engage.my. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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