Increasing discussion and support for a general election to be held in the near future should be confronted with the increasing number of new infections, images of overcrowded quarantine centres, intensive care units and overworked health workers, and the rising number of deaths due to Covid-19. Holding a general election during this public health emergency will result in dire consequences.
The consequences and lessons from last year’s Sabah state elections are abundantly clear. We have to acknowledge the fact that Malaysia is unable to organise large-scale elections which enable voters to safely participate in campaign activities and cast their votes during a communicable disease epidemic.
Months after those elections, we are still dealing with its consequences, with thousands of people infected, widespread community infections with hundreds of unlinked cases in locations far from suitable medical facilities, and a state healthcare infrastructure struggling to trace, isolate and care for those infected.
The Malaysian epidemic’s ongoing third wave whose origins can be traced to late September, has seen no sign of abating. In recent days, the Ministry of Health has announced not only record-high daily Covid-19 numbers but also expressed alarm at the increasing number of deaths caused by the disease. These conditions will likely worsen ten-fold in the aftermath of a general election.
In an election, physical rallies will be held despite warnings, SOPs will be selectively observed or ignored altogether, there will still be no options for mail-in voting, politicians will want to be seen shaking hands, speaking without masks, and glad-handing supporters.
While the Government estimated last August that RM 1.2 billion (the 2018 GE cost RM 500 million) would be needed to organise a general election during this epidemic, the possible economic cost due to lockdowns imposed to contain resulting explosions of infections, the crippling of businesses and households deprived of revenue and earnings, the hundreds of thousands who will definitely need to be isolated and quarantined, the thousands who will fall sick with serious illnesses and the hundreds who will die, tell us that the actual price tag will be much higher. There will be a massive surge beyond anything that we have seen before.
At the start of this session, the median age of a Malaysian Member of Parliament was 55.5 years. The incumbents or aspiring politicians eager to run in the next General Election are likely to be around that age or in their 60s. Many will have at least one or two non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease, as well as being either overweight or obese.
In other words, many of those politicians fall in the high risk and vulnerable groups of people who are likely to develop severe Covid-19 and experience serious complications as a result of infection. A general election environment would expose them to multiple opportunities and increased risk of infection and danger. The Sabah experience clearly showed that even Cabinet ministers and senior politicians are at risk.
Due to these reasons, for many, especially for those in the high risk and vulnerable categories, participating in a general election, whether as a candidate, election worker, political campaign supporter or voter, could mean life, debilitating illness or even death. We know from bitter experience and the cost of lives, both here in Malaysia and other countries, that this is not an exaggeration. It is a fact.
If there is a need to settle political differences and decide once and for all, who has the support of the people and should be the government of the day, the question should be resolved in Parliament.
A special legislative session of the Dewan Rakyat should be called. Let the people’s elected representatives decide among themselves in a location which can be sanitised, the threat of infection managed and controlled, with the number of people involved kept low. From a public health perspective, in Parliament, the danger of an outbreak can be realistically managed.
There is no need to put the wider public at risk, through campaigns, ceramahs and physical voting. We are in the midst of an unprecedented epidemic, a public health emergency. We should not treat this as business as usual.
Azrul Mohd Khalib is Chief Executive Officer of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.
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