Time for Action, Mr Prime Minister

Crowds in a supermarket in Malaysia before the start of the Movement Control Order (donvictorio | Shutterstock.com)

The events unfolding this week have shown clearly that Malaysia did not have any Emergency Preparedness Plan for an eventuality such as COVID-19. This, despite having experienced multiple events such as H1N1, SARS, and MERS over the last two decades. The scenes of human congestion in the bus terminals, highways and even police station last Tuesday demonstrate that we also do not have an effective Emergency Response Plan. We are now simply firefighting, responding in knee-jerk reaction to the fires breaking out around us.

In the meantime our doctors and frontline medical workers are fighting heroically to stem the tide of COVID-19 with a system ill-equipped for such a situation. They are being pushed and stretched to the point of exhaustion. What they need now is a support system that can give them the tools to fight more effectively, a social environment to control the movement of people, and an economic safety net to ensure that nobody gets left behind in these difficult times.

The fact is that this Coronavirus wind is not going to blow away after 14 days. What we need now is an Emergency Response Plan that can provide the much needed systematic support to help us withstand and weather this viral storm. This is not a two-week measure but a 24-month plan. It has to tackle not only the issues of medical capacity but equally importantly, the issues of how to keep the essential supply chains flowing – to feed our population, keep the power, water and communication channels working, continue the timely treatment of waste and sanitation and ensure financial liquidity for the public.

The Emergency Response Plan should also embody an Economic Support Programme. Aside from the continuity of businesses, we need immediacy in dealing with the human side of the crisis – the loss of income, loan payments for housing, cars, and credit cards, loss of family members, stress and psychological distress. An urgent call to the industry to work together with the government to manage the disruption is necessary. Those that can, need to pivot to manufacture urgent supplies – medicines, protective equipment, ventilators. Our medical research department budgets should be doubled immediately. We also need logistical support to get supplies to those in need. Testing needs to be scaled immediately; with help from the able private sector. We can return investment through stimulus once we have dealt with the immediate health crisis.

The Emergency Response Plan will require a high level of coordination – between the agencies of the Government, between Federal and State authorities and local governments, and, most importantly, mobilising the cooperation of the private sector and the public. However, decades of political abuse has left our public delivery system dysfunctional. The political turmoil of the last two years is but a manifestation of such a breakdown. In this time of crisis, we cannot depend on such a flawed system to work.

What we need is a high level Task Force that can direct strategic action along five critical pillars:

  1. the medical frontline;
  2. population movement control;
  3. economic supply chains;
  4. social safety net; and
  5. public communication.

This Task Force will employ a top-down and bottom-up approach to deploy initiatives rapidly and obtain quality feedback efficiently. They will be empowered to by-pass existing ossified command-and-control structures to work directly with critical actors from the government, non-government and private sectors to deliver clear and tangible outputs.

First, they will ensure that our medical heroes are receiving all the support they need. Second, it is crucial to empower key stakeholders to create intelligent local crowd-control strategies. Thirdly, they will monitor and unclog the issues affecting the smooth flow of critical supply chains. Fourth, provide a platform for community-level social safety net initiatives, and, fifthly, ensure that the public receives accurate and timely information, and is able to provide effective feedback.

The time for mature thought and decisive action is now. We still have a window of opportunity to turn the tide of what will otherwise be a social and economic catastrophe.

Signed:

Dr. Shahridan Faiez, former World Bank executive working with Post-Conflict Countries

Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Managing Director, Think City Sdn. Bhd.

Dr. Yunus Yasin, Educator and Chief Executive Officer, ASTI