Science and unity will save us


  • Vital Signs
  • Wednesday, 29 Jan 2020

Health Ministry officers distributing leaflets on the coronavirus to arriving passengers at KLIA2 in Sepang. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Fear and panic often spread faster than the viruses. There are many reasons for this fear, such as an actual disease risk, lack of genuine information, false news and rumours on social media, and politicisation by irresponsible parties. However, these emotions are dangerous because they distract from the public health response and harm national unity.

Let’s look at several points. Firstly, Malaysia has come through outbreaks before, such as Nipah in 1998, SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009. Our frontline staff, doctors, scientists and epidemiologists are well-trained and world-famous. Even without outbreaks, they fight dengue, tuberculosis and HIV every day. I trust the competence, courage and professionalism of my colleagues. As my friend Azrul Mohd Khalib says, this too shall pass.

Secondly, Malaysia’s Health Ministry (MOH) should be commended for a robust response to this outbreak. They have quickly and effectively set up screening points at border checkpoints, wrote disease protocols, and established quarantine zones in designated hospitals. Communication has been clear and frequent, through press releases, social media and a coordinated effort with other agencies like the police and the Malaysian Communications ans Multimedia Commission. We should trust their abilities and capabilities to lead us from this situation.

Thirdly, the health professions of Malaysia are united in the outbreak response, standing firmly behind the leadership of the MOH. The unity of the health professions should reassure the population, knowing that doctors, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, public health specialists, epidemiologists and scientists are doing everything they can. Frankly, they do this every day, not just during outbreak periods. They deserve appreciation and recognition for their sacrifice and courage.

Scientists around the world are working at historical speeds, collaborating so much faster than ever before. As one example, Chinese scientists released the genetic sequence of the virus only 10 days after the illness was first reported in Wuhan. In previous outbreaks, this took months. Science is moving much faster than ever before.

The same can’t be said about travel restrictions. Viruses have no passports, and it has already affected human beings from at least 16 countries so far. We can’t ban every country from travelling to Malaysia, because it’s administratively impossible, will harm trust and trade, and is not really effective.

Travel restrictions are only one part of a basket of solutions to manage this outbreak, and it is not a magic solution by itself. We must focus on many other solutions, and all of them require us to act responsibly.

We must practise hygiene, like handwashing, face-washing and proper sneezing etiquette, and eat well-cooked food. We should not attend too many large gatherings of people and restrict our own travel. We must seek medical attention if we feel unwell (although not to panic at the slightest sign of fever). And most importantly, we must seek reliable sources of information, eliminate false news and rumours and not politicise the situation.

A high-risk, low-trust environment is harmful for national unity. We must remember that this is a fight between species, not between countries or between individual citizens. Outbreaks can awaken the worst instincts of a society, which is why we must be aware of the risks to our national unity.

Our science is strong, our health professionals are united, and our MOH is doing its best. It’s up to the rest of Malaysia to act responsibly to be united against this virus. Science and national unity will save us in this fight between species.

Dr Khor Swee Kheng has postgraduate degrees in internal medicine and public health, and has worked in five health sectors across three continents. He is currently reading Public Policy at the University of Oxford. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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