THE set of rules for the second phase of the movement-control order (MCO) announced by the defence minister raises a number of very serious questions.
We must not forget the first and foremost purpose of the MCO. The MCO is a necessary policy whose first, foremost and ultimate goal is to stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
From a public health perspective, however, it is vital that every new government policy does not have unintended consequences – especially consequences that may in fact worsen the spread of Covid-19.
It is equally vital for the government to remember that the government’s priority should not be to “look” strong, but to be equally smart and strong.
Alarmingly, however, the restrictions announced as part of the second phase of the MCO may in fact be increasing the risk of Malaysians getting infected. We know this is not the intention of the government, which is all the more reason why we hope they will reconsider every aspect of their policies carefully. We examine the following scenarios carefully, from a public health perspective.
Reducing the number of operational hours of supermarkets and eateries means that the same amount of people will now have to use the same number of supermarkets and eateries in fewer hours in a day.
The most rudimentary mathematics will show that this means that there will be more people in a crowded space than before – which is the exact opposite of what the MCO should be trying to achieve, because the more crowded a space is, the higher the risk of the infection spreading.
The same goes for public transport. Restricting the hours of public transport means that people who would use the train at 11am or 4pm will now have to use the train at 10am or 5pm instead. This results in more people using the train at that time than before. Once again, this means a more crowded space, and a higher risk of infection spreading.
Transport restrictions will also make it more difficult for front-line health and essential service workers to get to work and back home. Not only is there no public transport, there are no taxis or e-hailing services past 10pm. Those who work night shifts and do not own their own transport will now not be able to move around at all.
On the issue of food delivery, there are a limited number of people who work in this sector. Restricting food delivery to before 8pm will mathematically mean that as a whole, fewer people will be able to get food delivered to them compared to before, and that people who have to work past 8pm will now not be able to purchase food for themselves.
People who work in food delivery services meanwhile, will now have less hours to operate, which means a reduction in income for this group of Malaysians in the gig economy.
While we all appreciate the need for strict adherence to and enforcement of the MCO, there are questions as to whether arresting more and more people is helpful in stopping the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Arresting more people will put a strain on the lockups and prisons and create overcrowding. Once again, more crowds means a higher risk of infection spreading.
Rounding up homeless people and putting them in camps (especially against their will) creates a similar problem. It changes the situation from one where people are spread out, to one where they are all kept close together – which again is the opposite of the purpose of the MCO. It means more crowds, and a higher risk of infection spreading.
We understand that the trade-offs are very steep during crisis situations. This is why we urge the government to consider the public health implications of any decisions. What the government must not forget is that restricting movement is a means to this end, not an end to itself.
New movement restriction policies should not create more overcrowding than before. It is vital that the government carefully consider the implications of such policies before implementing them, and manage all unintended consequences.
Similar to the policy regarding food distribution by civil societies, these policies suggest that more planning and input from relevant experts is necessary before making such policy announcements.
We urge the government to consider adding a permanent public health presence in the National Security Council throughout the duration of this outbreak.
Our plea to the government is to please exercise more care in formulating policy, as all of our lives are at stake here. – March 31, 2020.
* This is a joint statement issued by Altaf Deviyati, Khor Swee Kheng, Nathaniel Tan, B. Priya Lakshmy and Siti Noor Munirah Ibrahim of Kabinet Rakyat.
THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT