Not lockdown but forced social distancing to save Malaysia

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 18 Mar 2020

THE movement control order (MCO) announced by the Prime Minister on March 16 is perhaps the first such order that I have known since my own childhood days in Sarawak.

I was a small child back then but I remember being told that there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place for a short time and that we were not to go out of the house. The sound of soldiers patrolling the streets still remain with me to this day but being a child, worries about food and all the essentials of life didn't occur to me at the time.

This MCO however, was introduced for a different purpose and it is not a curfew. When the MCO was announced with a start date of March 18, there was understandably some confusion.

Many people, including myself, scrutinised every line of the speech. Was it a lockdown? Did we have to rush out to get food and essential supplies? What were we to do with our students and our work as public health specialists in a university setting?

As my colleagues digested the contents of the MCO, I gave the MCO an alternative name. Some people are calling it a lockdown, which it is not. I am therefore calling it "forced social distancing" or FSD.

Social distancing is an infection control measure to reduce transmission from infected people to susceptible individuals. This works by increasing the physical distance between people or reducing the frequency of congregation in socially dense community settings, such as schools, universities or workplaces.

FSD is simply social distancing that is forced on a population by the authorities because voluntary social distancing is not being followed.

The reason for this FSD is the Covid-19 pandemic that has frightened everyone with its speed and scale. Unlike the curfew that I remember when movements were strictly curtailed, this FSD does not compel one to remain indoors all the time.

Yet it would be a travesty if we did not treat it seriously.

How then can we make this FSD work? We should not use the FSD to take that "balik kampung" trip that we had been putting off. We certainly should not rush out to empty supermarket shelves of all the food that we can buy. We should not attend any form of social or religious gathering.

The FSD is not aimed at any race or religious denomination. It is not meant to make life difficult for any of us.

It does not matter if the religious event that we had planned happens only once a year. We should look beyond our selfish desires and consider our loved ones. This FSD is aimed at keeping all of us healthy, ESPECIALLY the most vulnerable among us.

These include our friends and family members who are elderly and those who have health issues like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and lung diseases.

Being selfish now and only considering our own desires may mean we risk the health of others and god forbid, risk not seeing them at this time next year.

So take the FSD seriously and limit our own physical interactions with others. After all, there is always social media. Use the extra free time to get to know our own family better, have that family meal we keep putting off and enjoy that TV family movie together.

Think of this as national service too, as reducing the number of Covid-19 cases reduces the risk of exhaustion and infection to our unsung healthcare workers fighting this pandemic. After all, these healthcare workers are also someone's else family member.

Contradictory as it sounds, staying away from other Malaysians now means helping to save other Malaysians.

Let us make this forced social distancing work to save Malaysia. Now, isn't that a nice way of putting it?

Datuk Prof Dr Awg Bulgiba Awg Mahmud

The writer is a public health medicine specialist and professor of epidemiology at the Dept of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Malaya. His views are his own.

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