Social distancing is the way to go to tackle COVID-19

March 20, 2020

The social-distancing measures announced this past week by Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has elicited much uncertainty, fear and panic. However, despite the abrupt decision, health professionals agree that such measures will save lives in the long run. Malaysia imposed social-distancing movement restrictions later than many other countries after the current pandemic – for example, China had a complete lockdown, Norway shut down its universities, and Spain declared a state of emergency – but the Southeast Asian country may need to enforce movement restrictions for several months beyond the current period ending on March 31, 2020, to really overcome COVID-19.

At present, Malaysian health professionals are coming together under the banner of the Malaysian Health Coalition, which has issued a series of joint statements of solidarity and recommendations. Everyone is encouraged to join in the national effort – besides the temporary inconvenience of staying at home or relying on hospitals in the case of illness, additional capacity from universities, the private sector and the military will help greatly in fighting the outbreak.

There are also some considerations for the Government that will aid emergency situations. Firstly, health/medical counsel needs to be heard at the National Security Council (NSC) table, where the Health Minister could be appointed as a semi-permanent member. The Health Minister could then consider convening a short-term advisory panel to advise him,the NSC or the Cabinet, where appropriate. A united health profession providing multi-disciplinary expert advice to the working Government will also provide invaluable crisis management skills.

Second, the Government must watch for unintended consequences of social distancing on individual groups, including those in that play a part in the economy. For example, there may be devastating impact to trade or food imports, the job or wage security of the B40 group or small business owners.The Government must mitigate these consequences well, as this will reflect their legitimacy and the wisdom of their decisions.

Finally, the Government must consider predictability in their decision-making. As one small example of crisis communication, press briefings can be held at the same time daily, delivered by the same person using the same format, length, structure and tone. Familiarity with a predictable rhythm breeds trust in a population that is looking for stability and confidence.

Afterwards, a third economic stimulus package will be needed, workers must be protected, and vulnerable communities must be supported. The Government will do its part to restore its society, but joining a community organisation to organise food delivery to older adults in your neighbourhood might be a first step you can take.

While outbreaks are a testing period, Malaysians should not panic-buy supplies, hoard or be unreasonably selfish. Bear in mind that fighting infections relies on other people washing their hands too, so we need not buy the entire shelf of hand sanitisers. Similarly, we should conserve medical supplies and medical care. With a reasonable amount of civic consciousness and selflessness, maybe we can gain the upper hand in the fight against COVID-19.


Category: Community, Features

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