Recover, we must, from Covid-19

I LIKE the analogy of a football game. When players perform a dismal display during the first half, the coach must make tough decisions. He needs to relook his strategy. More importantly, he must bring in alternative players. He must discard any notion of hurting the feelings of even his best and most expensive players. It is about winning.

We have gone through the first-half stage. It has been almost 18 months since the first case of Covid-19 hit our shores. Since March last year we have been in different stages of the movement control order. The government has even declared the state of emergency on the pretext of fighting the pandemic.

But things only got worse. More than a million Covid-19 cases have been reported. The economic situation is no better. And on the political front, the present government is hanging on by a thread. The drama in Parliament last week is more intriguing than Netflix’s Blacklist, it is more like Game of Thrones.

I must commend the government for setting up the National Recovery Council (NRC). The coach is bringing in fresh players, albeit not sacrificing the non-performing and the weary ones. Some argue it is too little too late.

According to media reports, the NRC will include a broad range of experts and captains of industry, as well as Opposition members. From what I understand, those appointed have yet to be informed of the terms and conditions. As of today, no one from the Opposition has been appointed.

Now is the time for such an outfit. The government has faltered in its fight against the pandemic and its record for economic planning is even worse. The business community is crying foul. Businesses are simply wiped out. The small and medium enterprises are facing a bleak future. The retail industry is suffocating. People are losing jobs.

For it to succeed, the NRC should not become a one-session meeting from time to time. It should be full time. Time, after all, is not on our side. Desperate times demand desperate measures.

It reminds me of how Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad tackled the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998. Things were spiralling downwards by the end of 1997. The wisdom at the time was to follow the script prepared by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indonesia did just that resulting in their social fabric being shattered.

Dr Mahathir knew he had to approach it differently. The National Economic Action Council (NEAC) was officially created on Jan 7, 1998. He brought in his trusted lieutenant, Tun Daim Zainuddin. Among the key members of the NEAC were Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcob and Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed.

Nor Mohamed was well-versed in currency trading. He was at the helm during the Bank Negara currency trading fiasco that lost billions. For the record, both Nor Mohamed and Mustapa are part of the current NRC.

Dr Mahathir did what a good coach should have done, bring in fresh legs and ideas, and change the formation of the game for the second half. He went against IMF’s pre-ordained formula and succeeded. The late Prof Datuk Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin, herself a brilliant economist, wrote about the council’s experience in Rewriting The Rules: The Malaysian Crisis Management Model, published in 2002. This is a must-read by all members of the NRC.

For now we are not sure if the word “recovery” in the newly-minted council refers to just the economy or the handling of the pandemic as well.

Unlike the financial crisis of 1997-98, the pandemic and economic management are almost intertwined. The government has been talking about an exit strategy, but for now, what is critical is managing the economy during the pandemic.

The Indonesians have a clear term for that, ekonomi koronavirus (literally, coronavirus economy). There is no sugar coating of words like Prihatin or such, it is simply measures to help the people.

The next stage is to manage the post-pandemic economy. The government must accept the fact that we have to live with this virus for a while more, just like some countries which are resigned to this fact.

I have argued in my earlier articles about the need for a well-coordinated, well thought out, people-friendly and whole-of-nation approach to combat the pandemic and to strengthen the economy.

The notion that the government knows all is over. The Cabinet must accept the fact that there are people with ideas out there, but marginalised and ignored. Thus, the need to change the game plan or we will suffer the ignominy of failure.

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

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