Lockdown Should Now Be Last Resort, Not First Response — Liew Chin Tong

The government must come up with a nine-month plan to deal with all aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, which should also include a thorough plan for vaccination.

Malaysia’s Covid-19 daily positive cases of 3,027 today (7 January, 2021) is the all-time high record. The situation is worrying and the government seems to be clueless of what to do next to contain the spread of the virus.

There seems to be a breakdown in communication within the government. On one side, some pushed for another round of lockdown or more stringent movement control to contain the spread. On the other side are those who think that there must be no more lockdowns as we cannot deal with the economic fallout.

Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah proposed to have another round of lockdown, albeit a more targeted and milder version. I think he is pitching this to the public in the hope to impose a fait accompli on the political leadership. It seems like lockdown is the administration’s only weapon to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

I urge the government as a whole to make up its mind which ways to go and stick with it.

Unfortunately, eleven months after the first lockdown on 18 March 2020, lockdown should now be the last resort, no longer the first response. The nation must be mentally prepared to live with Covid-19 for at least another nine months until vaccination reaches a huge number of our population.

The government must convince the public that it has done everything possible before a lockdown is warranted. Clearly, there are so many measures could have been taken by the government before another lockdown is imposed.

I would list five immediate action items for the government to execute before ever considering a new lockdown:

First, testing, testing, testing!

We have not ramped up testing to a level that would be available to almost everyone whenever they need one. The Ministry of Health is still adhering to the idea that only people with symptoms are tested. But we now know that at least 20% of positive cases are asymptomatic, but can be equally contagious. Therefore, the idea that only persons with symptoms are tested is out of date and doesn’t help to reduce the situation.

The private health sector should be involved in a much bigger way to help the testing effort at a much cheaper rate. Testing is not rocket science so it can be replicated with some efforts. We should ramp up testing with the Antigen rapid testing kits (RTK-Ag) that are quite inexpensive compared to the PCR, to help to slow the transmission of Covid-19.

DAP’s Bukit Gasing assemblyman Rajiv Rishyakaran proved that such intervention is possible when he announced the initiative to make testing kits available to the public at a discounted rate of RM70 without government subsidy. The same test kit costs between RM150 and RM180 at private healthcare facilities.

Such early diagnosis would help us gauge the situation most accurately and is certainly a cheaper way compared to city-wide or state-wide lockdowns.

Second, transparency of data.

I urge the Ministry of Health to stop the practice of giving weird names to clusters which have very little meaning to ordinary citizens and conceals the accuracy of the data.

What we want to know each day is how many prisoners are infected, which factory’s dormitory are now hotbed of infection, which shopping malls see spikes of infection.

With transparency of data, the entire government and the public can decide on what would be the most effective course of action to take, both for systemic good and personal safety.

Third, prisons.

More than 10 per cent of Covid-positive cases come from prisons and detention places and more than ten percent of prison guards and prisoners have been infected with Covid-19. Prisoners are sitting ducks in overcrowded prisons. The authorities have a responsibility to the prison guards, prisoners and the nation to prevent prisons from becoming hotbed of infection.

Senate President Tan Sri Rais Yatim, Dewan Rakyat Speaker and Deputy Speaker Datuk Azhar Harun and Datuk Seri Azalina Othman have tried to intervene but thus far there isn’t sufficient commitment from the Home Ministry to act.

On 5 October, the Prison Department identified 11,000 prisoners whose jail term is less than a year with remaining sentence of less than three months for “licensed early release” to reduce prison overcrowding. Thus far, averagely only 500 prisoners were released each month under this scheme since October, which doesn’t help the situation much.

There should be a “whole-of-government” effort to include the Welfare Department, the Police, National Anti-Drugs Agency and other authorities to ensure the released prisoners are placed on careful paths so not to repeat the offences.

There is an urgent need to strengthen the Prison Health Service too. Currently, very few medical resources are assigned to attend to health needs in the prisons. Given that prison is of very high risk in time of Covid-19 pandemic, more medical resources should be allocated to ensure no more outbreaks of infection from prisons.

Fourth, foreign workers.

There needs to be new thinking about foreign workers and their housing conditions. There must be ways to ensure the recently mandated massive testing effort are fully executed while serious efforts are taken to ensure physical distancing at dormitories.

Immediately, there should be ways to assure refugees and illegal migrant workers that testing for Covid-19 would not end them up in lockups and detention straight away. Otherwise they would all be hiding and spread COVID-19 virus to much wider areas.

Fifth, should every positive case be admitted in hospital?

The Health DG has indicated that the hospital beds are now at breaking point due to the spike in cases. A very serious question has to be asked collectively: do we need to keep asymptomatic cases all at facilities or are there other alternatives?

In the battle against Covid-19, the most important medical resources are ventilators and ICU beds. They help to prevent deaths. That much we all agreed. But beyond that, in order not to stretch the medical resources, we need a viable alternative for asymptomatic positive patients.

This includes having clear SOPs and guidelines for those required to quarantine at home, and employing technology including digital apps and telemedicine tools to trace, support and monitor the progress of patients. There should be robust debate and discussion on this by health experts across the field.

To conclude, the government must by now come up with a nine-month plan to deal with all aspects of the Covid-19 crisis which should also include a thorough plan for vaccination. More consultations should be held with all stakeholders and a wider range of experts through parliament and bipartisan parliamentary committees.

Malaysians deserve better.

Liew Chin Tong is a Dewan Negara Senator.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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