Adapting to a (painful) new normal


Perhaps there is a silver lining in the fight against Covid-19, but we must first brace for the worst before it gets better.

THE month of Ramadan is the time Muslims would love to be in the Holy Land most. Mecca and Medina are usually swarmed with pilgrims from all over the world to perform their umrah.

But this year, Saudi Arabia has halted all international flights, suspended the umrah and perhaps even the coming haj season due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to an article in Berita Harian by Aizuddin Kamarul Zaman recently, the two holiest mosques in the Muslim world – Masjidil Haram in Mekah and Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina – have been closed before. In fact, they have been closed a total of 40 times since the year 865 AD as the result of a pandemic of some kind.

The plague of 1837 resulted in the suspension of the haj for three years. But back then, the number of pilgrims were small. Today, at least two million pilgrims will converge on the Holy Land during the haj season.

Closer to home, there won’t be the nightly terawih prayers in the mosques and suraus, one of the highlights of Ramadan. We do not know what Hari Raya this year will be like either.

I am sure the balik kampung exodus will be curbed. The normally boisterous atmosphere will be severely affected. In my kampung, the baraan (Javanese) tradition (marhaban in Malay, where the congregation will visit every home in the village) will not take place this time.Welcome to the new reality. The new normal. We have to make adjustments for better or for worse. The Covid-19 pandemic is the game changer for humanity.

Humans have been priding themselves on having conquered almost everything, from the moon to the highest peaks. They have reshaped the world through unimaginable creations. Connectivity is spurned by unprecedented technological advancements. The skies are crowded with planes since everyone now can travel. There have been great breakthroughs in medical research. Yet humans are now down on their knees.

The world economy will be hit hard. Ours too. The movement control order (MCO) has impacted our daily lives and pockets. No amount of stimulus packages by the government will fully help both small and medium enterprises as well as the big guys. Companies will take time to revive. People will lose their jobs. Things will never be the same again. But the MCO is a necessity, no two ways about that.

No nation could have foreseen that the situation would be this dire, not even the biggest economies of the world. Luckily for us, we acted fast and decisively. That saved lives.

There is a silver lining to all these though. It is a wake-up call for us to prepare for any eventuality.

For one, we must prepare ourselves for future pandemics. Health services must be spruced up and equipped with the best technology and preparedness. The best equipment must be made available for medical frontliners.

The police, army and others must learn from this experience and they must be funded well. The future world war will no longer be about fighting among nations but against those unseen, menacing and dangerous viruses instead.

The mushrooming of businesses online during the lockdown is another plus point. These enterprises are started by largely young people who otherwise depend on revenue as salaried workers. The networking is exemplary, so too the efficiency of its distribution system. The government must support such entrepreneurship.

While Mak Cik Kiah needs help, the new breed of homegrown entrepreneurs, particularly young businessmen and women, are reshaping the online frontier and the entrepreneurial landscape of today, perhaps even the future.

There is another area the government must look into: Foreign workers. Due to neglect, corruption and whatever else, their exact numbers are impossible to ascertain. Even if the official figure is 10% of our population, that is big enough.

Many believe there are as many undocumented ones. They have been the pillars of our economy for a long time. But we need to cut the dependence on foreign workers.

Manufacturing, plantation, construction and service industries have been over-dependent on them. Cheap foreign labour has been the mainstay of our progress, so to speak. But it is time to move on. We must strive for a higher income economy with our young people learning new skills and setting new standards in professionalism, productivity and creativity.

Covid-19 is a scourge. But there is always a hikmah (blessing) in battling the scourge. This is going to be a protracted war. We must brace ourselves for the worse before it gets better. At the same time, we must painfully learn the lessons of today’s inconveniences for the future.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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