Heavier fines to arrest Covid-19 spike?

The pandemic is already punitive enough, particularly for the vulnerable. Excessive penalties may well be rubbing salt into the wound

Sketch by Wong Soak Koon/Aliran

The tremendous spike in Covid-19 cases nationwide in the recent past is understandably a cause for concern among Malaysians as it has an adverse impact on lives and livelihoods, as well as the medical frontliners.

This situation points to the urgent need for the authorities as well as the general public to break the chain of transmission in a more vigorous manner within our society.

Against this backdrop, Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced recently the government’s intention to amend the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act so that the present penalty of RM1,000 could be increased considerably.

This amendment is supposedly aimed at deterring the public from flouting the standard operating procedure of the movement control order, which is thought to be the primary cause for the menacing spread.

While strict adherence to the restrictions is very much favoured by many Malaysians, it is hoped that certain concerns can be addressed before stiffer fines are considered as a panacea and subsequently imposed.

Higher penalties would be burdensome for ordinary people who are economically vulnerable, particularly those in the bottom 40% of households, if they are caught breaking the law.

In Kuala Lumpur alone, for example, an estimated 30,000 families live below the poverty line, struggling to make ends meet. It is commendable that the federal government has recently offered to provide food assistance to these less fortunate.

That said, there are surely others living elsewhere in the country who also find great difficulty in putting food on the table, let alone paying stiffer fines, as a result of a prolonged period of various versions of lockdowns. It is feared that a few of them may inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the law in their desperate search for food – or jobs to get money – outside their homes where, for instance, physical distancing or staying home is near impossible. Such a case had already occurred last year.

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If that were to happen again, we may be looking at crowded prisons as a result of the poor and desperate not being able to pay the hefty fines. It would be tantamount to punishing the poor for being economically deprived, which is not of their making.

Should there be an increase in the penalties, it should instead be targeted at businesses who flout the rules – for instance, the reluctance of employers to address adequately poor working and living conditions of their (migrant) workers, which could be potential clusters of the pandemic.

For the standard operaring procedure to be strictly adhered to by all, guidelines must be made very clear and known to all. For instance, do you wear a mask to briefly go to the back of a stationary car to attend to a crying baby? Do you still maintain social distancing if by chance you bump into old friends while jogging?

As rightly pointed out by Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah, the government must create greater public awareness of the standard operating procedure and its guidelines so that the approach is more educational and persuasive rather than overly punitive.

In this regard, public awareness about the procedure could be enhanced through, say, educational TV and online classrooms for home-bound students. Behavioural change can start from an early age, and can also happen to their parents as well.

In the long run, the crucial standard operating procedure may well be taken into the people’s stride as part of the new normal. Wearing masks, for example, would be as second nature as wearing shoes when going out of the house.

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Equally important, as rightly reminded by Maria, the standard operating procedure must also be strictly applied to VIPs as well if this fight against the pandemic is to be presented as our collective and united assault against the menace. Double standards in applying the rule would unnecessarily make light of the seriousness of this collective fight.

Just imagine the impact it would have on the ordinary mortals if a minister or his deputy is slapped with the prescribed penalty if he or she is found flouting the rule by, say, crossing state borders when it is prohibited. It would be an example they would not forget to appreciate that the law is applied equally for the good of all.

If deterrence is indeed crucial in our fight against the pandemic, the authorities may want to consider an idea suggested by former health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, who recommended community service as an alternative to heavier fines, particularly for the less fortunate of our society.

It may take, as he suggests, the form of the offender having to advocate mask-wearing at a public area for a certain time period, or even educate communities concerned about the importance of observing the standard operating procedure. Its educational significance should not escape us.

The pandemic is already punitive enough for ordinary Malaysians, particularly the vulnerable, after a year of economic slump. Excessive penalties may well be rubbing salt into the wound. – The Malaysian Insight

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