Fine balance between lives and livelihoods known but taken for granted

Let’s focussed for once on who the enemies are: It’s the virus and the refusal to observe social responsibility. Not the government or its ministers. Period.

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Published by Astro Awani & Focus Malaysia, image from Astro Awani.

THE Government has to walk the fine balance between lives and livelihood. The emphasis on lives means a total lockdown which will definitely flatten the infection curve. But dream on, if you think the lockdown should be two weeks or at most one month to get the curve flattened.

The experience gained in the movement control order (MCO) 1.0 showed it took about one and half months – from March 18 to early May last year when the first conditional MCO was implemented – for the infections to move back to a two digit and a lower range three-digit figures.

However, this was accomplished at a great cost to the economy – RM2.4 billion a day – but at least it put an end to the second wave of infections or rather made the second wave more manageable with the pendulum moving back to a policy tilt towards economic revival and recovery.

Now, what about emphasising the livelihood aspect with a relaxed lockdown along with a relaxed SOPs. Yes, the economy will survive and perhaps thrive but at the expense of more infections and more deaths, which are for all to see with a spike in daily infections and deaths in this third, current wave of the COVID-19 attacks compared to the second wave.

So, don’t say choosing the economy over health or vice versa is a false dichotomy. It is real because at some point in time when the daily infections had reached 5,000, you are bound to tilt policy slightly towards preserving life, and vice versa when the situation is such that the economy is going to be in a coma mode. In the latter case, policy should be relatively tilted towards reviving the economy.

This dichotomy will always be there, as long as the COVID-19 infections are not being brought to manageable proportion.

It’s no easy task to strike the right balance, but of course it will be easy to talk and criticise on hindsight. Give constructive criticisms if you must but let that be free from innuendoes and politicking.

When the previous Government was handling the COVID-19 pandemic at its early stage, it dithered on whether or not to close the country’s borders. Understandably, that was a tough decision to make then. On hindsight, they should have closed the border but it is always easy to criticise on hindsight.

Now that the Government has relaxed some of its SOPs, for instance in allowing dining in and going to the barber, let’s not be too trigger-happy to dine in or go to the barber when it’s not necessary for you to do so.

If these are necessary by all means go! That is the meaning of personal discipline. You decide! But your decision must be based on being honest with yourself in determining the necessity of going out which in turn means exercising your social responsibility to ensure that you do not infect others and hence, the necessity of always observing the SOPs.

There was an opinion backed by data that the Government had allowed inter district and interstate travel too early after the CMCO in November, causing the daily infections to surge from a three digit to a four-digit one by late December.

It does not take a modicum of intelligence to decipher the Government did this because it did not want to see the rakyat suffering from too many job losses and business closures (by tilting policy slightly in favour of livelihoods over lives).

This policy tilt would have worked if after the interstate travel ban have been lifted by the Government, the rakyat continues to observe the SOPs in their domestic travels.

But what we saw then were people flocking to holiday destinations such as in Langkawi and Penang without giving a hoot to putting on masks, observing physical distancing or avoiding crowded places.

As the Malay proverb goes, it takes two hands to clap, so don’t just blame the Government for lifting interstate travels too early, when it was clearly seen a majority of the rakyat did not observe the SOPs while on holidays.

So those in the tourism industry especially hotel and resort owners, please note that when the time comes for the Government to lift again interstate and inter-district travels, train your staff to do it in a tasteful way in drumming the message to all holiday-goers on the need to still observe the SOPs while enjoying their staycation. Otherwise, your economic lifeline will be closed again for the third time.

And talking about the SOPs, the daily average of those flouting them is in the three-digit, about 600 a day to be precise.

If this number could be reduced to a daily one or two digits, it will definitely help to flatten the infections curve. Again, this requires personal discipline with its concomitant individuals’ social responsibility.

Do not wait for the long arm of the law to be called in via imposing hefty penalties for SOP violators which the government is considering when each individual can do so, that is, observing the SOPs at his or her own freewill.

So, when former premier Najib Razak happily took a swipe at the government for maintaining the MCO status but with more relaxations of the SOPs and described it as “Malaysia becomes one of the only countries in the world where ‘lockdown’ actually means ‘all open’”, he really misses the point because within the relaxed SOPs, there are still SOPs to be observed.

He should have realised that MCO 1.0 is very different from MCO 2.0 in term of the strictness of the SOPs, and similarly with CMCO 1.0 and CMCO 2.0.

At the end of the day, it is observing the SOPs that matters. After reaching for the first time since Jan 11 new cases that were in the 2,000s on Tuesday, new cases went back to the 3,000s yesterday (Feb 10), just in a matter of one day – a timely reminder to those who are stubborn enough to observe the SOPs.

And why, the strong antipathy against the ministers being given a three-day quarantine after returning from abroad instead of 10?

It’s just a sign the Government is considering tilting slightly towards the livelihood aspect of the balance in lives and livelihoods. Health Minister Dr Adham Baba made this clear when he said this may eventually be extended to business travellers and the public.

To begin with, there was never a minister cluster in the past, and it is not every day all the 30 plus ministers will go abroad.

As for the science of it as demanded by some, doesn’t the World Health Organisation (WHO), said barring outliers, the normal COVID-19 incubation period ranges from two to 10 days?

Just like the original 14-day quarantine was reduced to a 10-day, what’s wrong with reducing it to a three-day one which is also within the range of the WHO’s guideline.

So, what is the fuss all about? The Government can always rescind this measure at the slightest sign this will cause the spread of the infection. There will always be a calculated risk the Government has to shoulder in balancing lives and livelihoods.

Let the ministers do their respective jobs for the national interest of the nation commensurate with what they are paid. The pandemic should not bring the country to a standstill.

Furthermore, as the virus is a new animal, and hence the name novel coronavirus, there is much to gain in thoughtful experimentation with some policy measures.

Let’s be focused for once on who the enemies are: It’s the virus and the refusal to observe social responsibility. Not the Government or its ministers. Period.

Jamari Mohtar is the director of Media & Communications at EMIR Research, an independent think-tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based upon rigorous research.

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