Malaysians urgently needs transparent and inclusive development strategies to repair the damage caused by the coronavirus, Viswanathan Selvaratnam writes.
The recent deadly and contagious coronavirus, linked to an outbreak in Wuhan, China in November 2019, has traversed across 187 countries within a space of four months.
This particular coronavirus, unknown to the world before, had by 6 June, infected almost 7 million people with the death toll rising to 400,000. The infections and deaths are continuing to mount in the US, Brazil, India, the UK and Mexico. The pandemic has become an unprecedented global health, economic, employment and social calamity.
International Monetary Fund chief Kristina Georgieva said, “For the first time since records began, the entire world economy is contracting, rich and poor countries alike.”
More distressing news, this time from the United Nations World Food Programme: a further 160 million people worldwide are on the brink of starvation.
Malaysia was not spared the pandemic. On 28 January, director general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced that the country had only three cases. Since then, the numbers have surged to over 8,200 cases – and rising.
Thankfully, of late new infections have generally been lower and the recovery rates higher, with the mortality relatively low. Since May 25, however, this optimistic storyline has been reversed somewhat, with occasional daily three-digit spikes in the number of fresh cases.
The pandemic has devastated the economy, people’s health and their livelihoods at a time when the country’s politics and its economy were in disarray.
After the government enforced a movement control order on 18 March, the newly installed Perikatan Nasional Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, initially slow to respond to the calamity, announced on 1 May that the lockdown had taken a toll on the country’s economy. He said the estimated economic loss then was RM63bn, and if the restrictive measures continued, it could escalate to a whopping RM100bn.
Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz noted the country faces “the worst economic recession in its history” with gross domestic product and employment falling.
Even before the pandemic, Malaysia’s economy was already in decline and incomes of low-income workers and households already precarious. GDP, exports, currency, investments and employment levels were already on a rollercoaster. A 2017 study by Bank Negara Malaysia and the National Economic Council classified 75% of the country’s low-income workforce and 60% of households as surviving on less than a living wage.
The dilemma Malaysia faces now is between protecting people’s lives and livelihoods. Thus, the preeminent challenge for Malaysia is twofold:
- to impede the spread of the coronavirus and to protect the people from this deadly virus
- to kickstart the damaged economy to the pre-Covid-19 level or to adapt it to the economic “new normal”
To kickstart the economy, Malaysians must be assured they are safe in their workplaces, public transport, places of worship and other public places. They must feel safe while shopping and dining in restaurants. They must be assured their children will be safe in schools, universities and tertiary institutions. Otherwise the fear of infection and death will continue to loom and, more importantly, undermine the mental psychology of Malaysians.
For now, Malaysia must keep ahead of the infection curve, protect people’s lives, secure public trust and restart the economy. In restarting the economy, Malaysians must, as Dr Noor Hisham warns, “lead in societal, behavioural changes to learn how to live with Covid-19 for a long, long time” and to adopt new norms to survive and comply with standard operating procedures.
Social distancing will act as a drag on the economy, but this is the price the country has to pay to keep Malaysians safe. In the absence of a national safety net, going back to work – with safety procedures in place – will enable daily-wage workers to earn cash to tide them over.
Malaysia’s recovery hinges on the duration it will take to rein in the pandemic worldwide. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organization, predicts a timeframe of four to five years.
In such a timeframe, the country will have to focus on unity and not division. To combat the pandemic, all government departments and all of society will need to be involved, say Jomo Kwami Sundram and Anis Chowdhury in a recent article.
In a similar message, but from a narrow public health perspective, Dr Noor Hisham says “Malaysians must come together and strictly observe social discipline to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 outbreak… If we want to be successful and break the chain of infection, we have to come together as one.”
Thus, there is no place for exclusionary ethno-religious politics that targets its intervention in certain communities and non-intervention in others. Small and medium-sized enterprises, the backbone of the country’s economy, should not face ethnic discrimination.
Ethnic-based policies will result in many marginalised Malaysians emerging from the economic meltdown without jobs or savings, and without any social safety net protection. Many of them will desperately need money and food; some might feel they have no choice but to resort to crime.
Malaysia therefore urgently needs sound policies for transparent and inclusive development strategies to repair the damage caused by the coronavirus. The prerequisite for such policies is an inbuilt mechanism that nurtures social consciousness for the common good to achieve national social cohesion and solidarity in health, education, industry and business.
Covid-19 is a global pandemic. Rich countries’ politics and profits are hindering developed countries’ leadership in forming a unified and equitable front to find a vaccine and establish coherent coordinating mechanisms to fight the disease.
A worldwide mechanism for its early detection, response and containment may help countries avoid the last-ditch measures of lockdowns and movement restrictions, which will hit economies and severely disrupt people’s livelihoods and social life.
Viswanathan Selvaratnam, a third-generation Malaysian, lives in Kuala Lumpur. A higher education specialist, he has taught at the University of Malaya and very briefly at the National University of Singapore