MCO: The national fallacy

Businesses will crumble, economy will snap and livelihoods will be scarred for generations

pic by BERNAMA

IN MARCH 2020, Malaysia introduced the first Movement Control Order (MCO) that essentially put the country to a grinding halt. It stopped everyone in their tracks and was essentially to allow the country as a whole to understand the severity of the pandemic that was descending on the world.

It was during this time, the Ministry of Health and all relevant agencies took the opportunity to learn as much as they could about how to control and break the spread of Covid-19.

As we progressed further into 2020, our number improved further downwards and there was a sense of joy for the nation when we even had zero reported cases. This is where the problem began.

We started to congratulate each other on a job well done, dished out honours and titles left, right and centre, all the while the worldwide number of cases and deaths were hitting record highs.

Even international media were reporting how successful Malaysia was in combatting the pandemic.

We were proud. We were happy. We were dead wrong. As I have told many times before, the first and second waves were just a mere taste of what was to come. This was to be expected as we were testing too little. The less you test, the less you find.

The Sabah State Elections was only a trigger to what was actually already happening in the country; the cases were already in the community.

We just did not go and find it. This was the second mistake we made; We did not have a plan.

The conclusion of the election saw the complete uncertainty of public health implementation measures. We started with no quarantine, 14 days, 10 days, then no need but for some is required.

The system was in disarray because public health measures were influenced by political leaders. Leaders who are not trained in public health or clinical science in that matter.

Regardless, during this time, little measures were taken to ensure essential ventilators and intensive care unit beds were equipped to handle the surge of patients or the distribution of healthcare staff was done.

As numbers reached thousands of new positive cases, calls from public health experts were not heard. Repeated cries of telling the government to enforce self-home quarantine for asymptomatic patients were brushed aside.

Even as healthcare workers were reporting burnouts, overworked and extreme exhaustion.

All this was happening alongside record numbers of unemployment, severe economic distress, increasing numbers of domestic violence and high incidence of mental health issues even among children.

A holistic plan was crafted by our top academics but all fell on deaf ears. It appeared as though no one else could handle the pandemic or give any ideas.

Let’s not forget about a lost generation of school-going children who will undoubtedly have stunted learning. I won’t even bother touching on tertiary education quality.

In a few days, we will celebrate our first anniversary on Jan 25, when we detected our first Covid-19 case. To mark this, a lot of noise is made about the need for another MCO. I keep telling people MCO only benefits the people who ask for it and no one else.

If it does go through, businesses will crumble, our fragile economy will snap and livelihoods will be scarred for generations.

A holistic approach in addressing the problem is needed. An MCO should be replaced by putting in force stricter standard operating procedures (SOPs) such as a complete ban on gatherings.

Everything is triggered through gatherings, not through movement. Stop in-person dining, limit mosque congregants, stop weddings, kenduri and other forms of crowd gatherings.

Refocus testing to targeted and vulnerable groups such as migrant workers. Find the positive cases and isolate them. We also have to prepare the public by saying that our numbers will increase. The positive rates will shoot up, but this just shows that we are doing our job.

We are finding the cases. The public is not ignorant or stupid but perhaps forgetful. This is why we have to constantly remind and enforce SOPs compliance.

We need to iron out the micro aspects of pandemic response and not choose the way of an MCO.

What we need to again ask ourselves is if an MCO is really needed or is it actually the easiest option? Has an MCO become a national fallacy?

Assistant Prof Dr Mohammad Farhan Rusli, Public Health Medicine Specialist Health Policy, Economics and Finance at the International Islamic University Malaysia

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.