Ticking time bomb

If we’re not careful with how we deal with the combustible health hazard right now, we could be in for an explosion of Covid-19 cases.

The new Covid-19 clusters are like embers, according to Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah. If we don’t comply with the standard operating procedure (SOP), including wearing face masks and practising social distancing, it’s like we are the fuel, he said.

“So, when fuel mixes with embers, it will cause a huge blaze, which means a sudden spike in cases,” he said at the Covid-19 media briefing in Putrajaya on Monday.

Dr Noor Hisham warned that Malaysia is on course for a third wave of the dreaded and deadly pandemic if we don’t follow the SOP.

I’ve seen many Malaysians potentially fuelling the embers.

Last month, I stepped out of my Subang Jaya bubble for a road trip to Pahang to check out the Chini by-election. It was scary to see that Covid-19 SOPs weren’t observed there.

I had nasi lemak for breakfast at a warung in a Felda settlement in Jengka near Jerantut town. The settlers at the diner treated me like family and were just generously genial people. They extended their hands to salam (greet) me.

Casting SOP preaching aside for a moment, I couldn’t refuse shaking hands with a 70-year-old settler with a charming smile. Not shaking hands was against the culture that we were brought up in. We were taught it was the polite way to greet each other.

I ordered nasi lemak and then told them I forgot something in my car. My hidden agenda was to clean my hands with a hand sanitiser.

There was also no social distancing at the table. About six settlers aged 40 to 70 sat less than a metre apart while we talked about the price of oil palm and the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

None of us wore face masks. I thought it impolite to wear one among the settlers.

They were innocently oblivious to any threat. It probably didn’t cross their minds the outsider could be an ember.

It reminded me of what my political analyst friend told me when I asked her to go to Pahang to observe the Chini by-election. “I hope outsiders will not bring Covid-19 as they campaign or visit,” she said.

With that in mind, when I met locals during my road trip, I would smile and politely refuse to salam. Instead, I did a fist bump when they extended their hands. An 80-year-old villager in Bera greeted my fist bump with a surprised look. The poor man didn’t know how to respond.

The new normal in towns is distinct compared with in the villages and Felda settlement, where nearly no one wore a face mask.

I observed three out of ten people wearing face masks in the towns of Pekan, Jerantut, Temerloh, Mentakab and Triang.

In Mentakab town, social distancing was practised. Customers were lined up baking under the hot sun outside a bank. But they did as they were told, not understanding why such a rule existed.

Customers stood less than a metre apart, though, so it seemed like a hypocritically enforced rule. They may as well have been inside the air-conditioned bank.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve noticed us becoming lax with the Covid-19 new normal. We are less disciplined than when we had the Movement Control Order (MCO) and conditional MCO.

So, it looks like the “R” in recovered MCO is for “relaxed”, instead. It’s as if we think the worse is over and we can get back to the old normal.

About two weeks ago, I asked Azrul Mohd Khalib, Galen Center chief executive officer, whether he thought a third wave of Covid-19 pandemic would hit Malaysia.

Azrul pointed out that several answered questions could provide light for a response.

Is the Covid-19 surveillance data that we see right now reflective of the actual spread of Covid-19 in the population?

Have the screening and testing strategies adapted to the recovery MCO environment or still dependent on people coming forward for testing based on physical symptoms?

Why are we not seeing significant rises of reported cases after festive events such as Hari Raya?

Azrul believes we have done well with the SOPs and feels the current restrictions are sufficient. In some ways, he’s implying we have imposed more stringent measures than many more developed countries.

However, Azrul said the biggest challenge in Malaysia is getting the cooperation and compliance of people, businesses and offices.

“Complacency is setting in and you can clearly see that the public and even members of the government (e.g., in parliament) are not even wearing face masks which the latter’s regulations stipulate should be worn during certain closed conditions,” he said.

“It is frustrating as we are lulled into a false sense of security by the seemingly low reported data and the false perception that this is largely involving non-nationals.”

Azrul warned that based on his observation, it was no longer a question of if a third wave would arrive, but when.

“As much as we would like to believe, Malaysia is neither an exception nor exempt from the global or regional epidemiological trend,” he said.

I pray Azrul is wrong, and that the ember will not ignite into an inferno.

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