Will Malaysia become like India?

Bad surge: Several areas have been converted for the mass cremation of Covid-19 victims in New Delhi. The Covid-19 situation in India appears to be completely overwhelming the ability of the world’s second most populous nation to cope. — AFP

WE’VE all seen the horror story unfolding in India.

The Covid-19 situation there appears to be completely overwhelming the ability of the world’s second most populous nation to cope.

In Malaysia, meanwhile, after a brief dip, we are seeing the numbers climb higher and higher once again.

I am not a public health expert, but there’s the slightest possibility that it does not take an expert to see a few patterns with regards to how we have been battling this crisis.

From a public policy perspective, the problem is most frequently couched in terms of balancing public health versus economic priorities.

If we shut down sectors of the economy, we reduce crowds, and – as we have seen many times in Malaysia – we bring the Covid-19 numbers down.

The flip side of this of course is that this exerts pressure on Malaysia’s economy.

In order to relieve that pressure, as soon as we see numbers going down a little, we start reopening the economy.

The flip side of that, meanwhile, is that the Covid-19 numbers invariably go back up.

Well over a year into this crisis, this circular pattern should be readily apparent even to the most blind among us.

Someone once told me: In life, there are two cups of tea – one bitter and one sweet. One way or another, you will have to drink both. You only get to choose which tea you drink first.

It feels like we are choosing to drink the sweet tea first, only to find ourselves thereafter drinking the bitter tea of climbing Covid-19 numbers.

The impression I get is that countries that have successfully contained Covid-19 are those that have really gone all out – countries that have imposed the strictest lockdowns, for the longest periods of time, at the earliest possible stage.

In such countries, restrictions are finally eased when the numbers become little to nothing, but are then very quickly reinstated at the slightest hint of trouble.

This strikes me as the kind of vigilant, disciplined approach that has clearly been proven to be successful.

Basically, these countries have drunk the bitter tea first. Who can forget Jacinda Ardern’s video of New Zealanders enjoying a barbecue because they had brought down Covid-19 numbers so low?

In Malaysia, our problem seems to be one of half measures.

We seem to only be willing to impose strict measures for very short periods of time. Where other countries may only ease lockdowns when cases reach one or two digits, we seem to think everything is fine when cases reach, say, three digits or so.

At that point, it feels like everything gets reopened, as if there were no pandemic at all.

I find myself telling people: If I want to know what next week’s Covid-19 numbers are going to be like, I just peek in at my neighbourhood mall down the road.

If it looks as full as it did before Covid-19, then you can be sure that we will be seeing a big increase of cases within a week. This admittedly unscientific method has more or less been quite accurate so far.

Even the economic arguments for reopening so many things so quickly seems to have a fatal flaw.

Our economy is best served once the Covid-19 pandemic is truly under control. If we half-heartedly implement half-measures and reverse those measures before the cases are brought down to a sufficiently low number, we are in fact perpetuating both the public health and economic crisis.

Countries that have drunk the bitter tea first, meanwhile, have taken astute steps to weather the initial economic storm, and are now reaping the benefits of a improved, functioning economy - simply because that initial bitter tea has allowed them a genuine, long-term reopening of their economy.

Our approach is like insisting on discharging a sick man from the hospital before has fully recovered, and forcing him to work. This results in him falling sick again, and eventually being put back in hospital.

This cycle is then repeated again and again.

Other countries wait for the sick man to fully recover, no matter how long and difficult the process is. When that man is finally discharged, however, he is genuinely recovered and does not keep ending up back in hospital.

I am also wary of the idea of believing that “sufficient adherence to SOPs” will allow for safe reopening of certain sectors.

From my observations, SOP guidelines are ineffective. Partially because they don’t go far enough, and more so because compliance is essentially impossible to properly enforce.

Perhaps the only way to really bring numbers down is to prohibit almost any activity that involves big crowds.

I feel bad that this will likely affect some people economically more than others, but I think it is the difficult reality we have to face.

For instance, shopping malls will likely need stricter requirements (or to be closed to the public completely) than say businesses in shophouses.

Perhaps we don’t need to ban all Ramadan food sellers, but we may need to ban centralised, crowded Ramadan bazaars. Perhaps these need to be spread out over a wider area, rather than concentrated in one space.

Schools, places of worship, and other crowd centres most likely need to be shut down for a longer period of time, unfortunately.

I won’t be happier than anyone else about measures like these, but this is exactly the type of bitter tea that we need to swallow, if we ever want to get out of this see-saw Covid-19 numbers, and bring the numbers down to levels that are sustainable over the long term.

Nathaniel Tan is a strategic communications consultant. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Clubhouse: @Nathaniel_Tan, email: nat@engage.my. #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy. The views expressed here are solely his own.

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