The 'new normal' after April 14 — a checklist

Liew Chin Tong is a senator and former deputy defence minister.

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The second phase of the Movement Control Order (MCO) begins on April 1 and ends on April 14. The government, the society and the nation needs to work out how to “reopen” without causing a new bout of coronavirus transmissions.

The government, via the Prime Minister, should make it a public commitment to try its level best not to extend into a third MCO period. It’s crucial to be candid and transparent.

With a new vaccine probably 12 to 18 months away, reopening after four weeks of MCO-suppression strategy doesn’t mean we can go back to life before the MCO and act in the same way. The public should be informed of what ought to happen and what we should do together to ensure that Malaysia can reopen on April 15, albeit to a “new normal”.

First, testing, testing, testing
The second MCO period should be about testing, testing and testing!

The suppression/containment strategy via MCO is meant to “buy time” to avoid any sudden exponential spikes of cases which would result in the collapse of the health system like what had happened in Italy.

But without expanding testing and tracking massively, we still won’t know how many carriers out there who can spread the virus the moment the MCO ends as we can’t isolate and treat them.

The details about testing should be shared during the Health Director-General’s daily press conference. Each day Malaysians should be told the total number of tests done and of special interest is the tracking on influenza-like illness (ILI)/ severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) (community transmission) figures.

According to the Ministry of Health’s website, as of noon on March 31, 40,483 persons have been tested, of which 2,766 are positive, 29,498 are negative, and 8,219 pending for results.

Ideally, we should test more than 300,000 people or 1% of Malaysia’s population by April 14. This is in line with Health Director-General Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s target to test 16,000 persons a day from April onwards. We have tested 40,000; if we test 16,000 per day from April 1, we would get another 224,000. Let’s set it higher at 300,000 and dynamically expand the tests to reach the target. 

Private hospitals, military hospitals, and possibly some private clinics can be roped in to do tests, such as setting up drive-through test centres like what Korea has done.

Police should be brought in to do more contact tracing work.

Testing should be the No. 1 priority in the next two weeks, at all costs. No point spending on any other item if we can’t get testing and tracing right. Without testing massively, we are in a situation of “we don’t know what we don’t know”.

Second, securing our healthcare frontliners and hospitals
We must secure the hospitals and health system to protect our frontliners before we reopen.

The Health Ministry should be applauded for planning more hospital beds for Covid-19. According to Noor Hisham, the ministry initially planned for 3,400 extra beds but was now prepared to use all its training institutes to house Covid-19 patients, which would provide an additional 19,200 beds.

What is unsure is whether there was a clear plan to surge the number of ventilators and ICU beds. From global experience, ventilators and ICU beds are crucial in the battle against Covid-19. Malaysians would like to know the number of new ventilators the government procured recently and when they will be delivered to the hospitals, and how many of the ventilators owned by private hospitals can be commissioned for public usage to fight Covid-19.

From the engagements of my team and my friends with hospitals in Klang Valley and Johor, most hospitals are still short of supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), masks and even sanitizer. I am worried.

Third, masks, sanitisers/soaps and surface disinfectants
We must ensure that our medical frontliners get to use masks before everyone else. That is basically the Health Ministry’s message all along, to which we have no objection.

But if we were to reopen for business, schools and work on April 15, given that many are asymptotic carriers, people may need to carry masks and use them when necessary, for example, when travelling in public transport with others who are not one’s immediate family, or when working as a front desk worker where one inevitably need to be in close physical contact with many clients each day.

Ideally, we need more masks as we will need lots of them. The government should engage in a “war-time production” push for masks to be produced locally, apart from producing overseas, particularly China. Same goes for sanitisers, soaps and surface disinfectants.

For some Malaysians who are not rich and can’t even afford meals, there will be a need to provide them with masks and sanitizer, as well as conducting awareness campaigns for good hygiene practices.

Fourth, social distancing at workplaces and schools
We are still not out of the woods as yet on April 15. There is no guarantee that there won’t be another spike in cases if we don’t take precaution. When schools and offices reopen, social distancing measures must continue to be observed with regular temperature checks and proper hygiene standards kept. It is also recommended that schools and colleges remain closed and students be directed to study online for an extended period until after Hari Raya holidays. The earlier the government makes a decision on this, the better it would help teachers, parents and everyone else make their plans.

That would prevent schools and colleges from becoming sites for mass transmissions.

Efforts must be made to make available access to the internet for all students so as not to result in inequality, particularly in rural areas.

Fifth, food, supply chain and logistics
The government must get its act together. The left hand must know what the right hand is doing. For the MCO to work, it needs to be stringent and “harsh”. That we all understand.

But it is also very critical that those responsible for security apparatus must ensure that the MCO doesn’t create a shortage of food, and doesn't break the supply chain and logistics arrangements to make available supply.

If the government is committed to reopen on April 15, it is important to ensure food is sufficient and accessible to all in the second phase of the MCO by ensuring that the food supply chain is not broken. If the government eventually extends into the third MCO period, taking extra care now to ensure food supply is of utmost importance.

Scarcity in food can cause prices to skyrocket and result in social unrest. We are at war with Covid-19 but we are not exactly at war with bombs raining on the roof day and night. The government must not cause any unnecessary food shortages just because its left hand doesn’t talk to the right hand.

Conclusion
The next fourteen days are very crucial. The MCO/suppression strategy is not meant to be implemented forever.

The exit strategy — especially the five issues I listed above — must be well planned and well executed.

Again, I hope the government makes a public commitment that it intends to reopen on April 14 and communicate to the Malaysian public what it intends to do over the next fourteen days in order to prepare Malaysia for the “new normal”.

 

Liew Chin Tong is a senator and former deputy defence minister.

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