10/2020 – Lives versus livelihoods in the face of pandemic

Lives versus livelihoods. We hear the same arguments everyday.

On one extreme end, lockdown everyone until after we have 14 continuous days of zero new-infections in the world. This could take months, the economic costs will be so devastating and we will have nations of home prisoners going mentally berserk.

On the other extreme, open up the economy on May 1 and open up air travel, infect and cross infect, build immunity through herd mentality and soon the living will not have to worry about being infected again. Never mind the few million deaths of the vulnerable old and diseased people.

Meanwhile, the sharp fall in the health of the economy will also affect the global population as the weak companies will fall out first, followed by mass unemployment, economy turning from a recession into a depression, more unemployment, failure of financial institutions and finally countries across the globe will become broke and the people living in abject poverty.

At both ends, cost of lives will be so exorbitant whether in death or destroying so many livelihoods beyond our comprehension. The only solution is a vaccine. The only problem is that it will take another 12 to 18 months for a vaccine to be found.

Can we find a solution, a middle ground to this madness of weighing lives versus livelihoods?

China has shown us how to control the virus. None of the other 213 countries in the world has adopted the China approach. As the rest of the world is still trying to flatten the curve, China’s next big fight is to control imported infections. So China closes its borders and wait for the rest of the world to heal and report zero infections. That will take many many months as the rest of the world will open up their lockdown policies and resume economic activities. Re-infection will happen and the rest of the world will stutter, do many smaller lockdowns whenever new clusters are found until a vaccine is found.

So in the next 12 to 18 months, we will find a new way to live, the new normal for the global population to adapt to. How will it affect our lives?

Post MCO – pre vaccine

Laws will be enacted to ensure that a face mask is worn every time anybody goes out of the house. Hand sanitisers will be carried around together with your wallets and moisturising hand cream will be used daily to reduce your itchy skins on your hand due to excessive washing and the alcoholic drying effects.

Social distancing will alienate families and friends and many open businesses will have to operate with half capacity. People all over the world will have to line up patiently like the Japanese for the simplest task of buying grocery or waiting for a vacant table in a halved capacity restaurant.

The whole world becomes paranoid. People will avoid travelling to places of high infections whereas government will close its borders from fear of imported infections. People will avoid mass public places, vulnerable people will stay more at home.

Spending money will be diverted from non-essentials to basic essentials and personal safety. Higher personal hygiene standards will become the new habit. Homes and places of work will smell like hospitals due to daily sanitisation of everything. “Stay safe” will be the most used closing line in our messages to our family members, friends and colleagues.

More families will be displaced due to business failures and unemployment. Social problems and criminal activities will rise due to poverty and helplessness. Personal, business and government debt will increase tremendously as many businesses collapse in a deflated economy.

The extent of the problems mentioned can be mitigated if we remain calm, and the government is able to coordinate its strategies together with local economic partners. A successful collaboration between all parties is absolutely vital if this country wants to get out of this pandemic meltdown with the least damage as compared to other countries.

The Malaysian government has proven that they are proactive in managing the pandemic by implementing MCO early and now gradually easing towards a resumption of economic activities. Just like previous policies, the intent and ideas are good but as always, implementation leaves much to be desired. The need to control is not matched by its capabilities to manage.

The Health Ministry knows where the hot spots are. Similarly, they know where the green spots are. Their contact-tracing of the tabligh outbreak, even though painstakingly slow, have started yielding results. New clusters from tabligh-related infections have been identified in tahfiz schools and the ministry has moved in to contain the situation. The blind spot will come from the migrant workers who have not been tested just as Singapore has discovered recently.

If the tahfiz schools and migrant worker issues are not resolved by end April, there is a likelihood that the MCO might be extended till after Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which is towards end May. The risk of two million Muslims travelling back to their hometowns will render these six weeks of MCO ineffective and wasted.

What we need is more testing and at a higher capacity than the planned 16,500 tests per day. The new South Korean rapid test kits have been approved and hopefully with a lower cost. Early detection is the key as proven in many other successful countries.

Gradual resumption of economic activities can be managed effectively if employers work with the Health Ministry on agreed strict guidelines. As it is, the guidelines are the same as in the practice of social distancing at the work place, personal hygiene and prevention of transmission.

The ministry should work on the bulk purchase of rapid test kits and offer these services to all workplaces to test their workers at an affordable cost. I would gladly pay RM150 per test per worker just to have peace of mind for all parties. This tests will be our first line of defence at the workplace.

Workplaces that want to resume their operations will have to incur additional expenses on safety measures for workers. All staff members should be provided with face masks and hand sanitisers as the protection should cover travelling to and from work, inside the workplace, and educating the workers to observe high personal hygiene at home and at work. The cost of one positive case discovered at the workplace will be even more expensive due to sanitisation cost, loss of work hours and re-testing of all the staff.

All workers should be temperature tested at the entrance and asked if they are feeling unwell. Every precaution should be taken at the workplace. My friend who just restarted his factory operations has gone to the extent of paying for delivered lunch for his workers and reconfiguring the canteen seating to practice social distancing. Where it is not possible to have the metre-length space in between two workers, he has provided transparent polycarbonate full face mask as additional protection.

As the majority of the population is Covid-19 free due to the six weeks of MCO, the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) can resume economic activities in various industries with strict guidelines for the employers to follow. The Health Ministry should continue to ban mass gatherings and mass movements until the coast is clear. That should be non-negotiable.

Lives versus livelihoods decisions should be based on a calm and calculated strategy with cooperation from all segments of the population. The ideal balance of the equation would be a minimum loss of lives and livelihoods so this nation will suffer less in this pandemic – economic misfortune.

Cliche as it may sound, we are all in this together. So let’s work towards a gradual recovery of our lives and economy.