Today’s decision by Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin to defer the tabling of amendments to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) to the next parliamentary sitting in 2022 is welcome, and marks a new way forward in engagement and consultation in the development of health care policies.
Act 342 does need updating. The legislation is 32 years old. There are penalties which are inadequate and need to be revised. New powers to address issues such as digital technology and home quarantine. New checks and balances to be put into place to protect against excessive enforcement and violations of human rights and dignity.
Act 342 must keep up with ongoing developments regarding infectious diseases, and allow for better and more effective public and private sector compliance and enforcement, particularly during public health emergencies such as the Covid-19 crisis.
The past 18 months have taught us a lot about managing an incredibly infectious disease such as Covid-19. There have been many highs, especially the number of people who have recovered from infection, who have completed their vaccinations, and whose lives have been saved due to timely and appropriate treatment provided by health care professionals working tirelessly since the beginning of the pandemic.
But at the same time, fatigue and perception of double standards have begun to erode public trust and confidence.
The use of the law to criminalise certain behaviours or actions such as not wearing face masks, organising events where physical distancing is difficult to implement, or activities in night clubs or pubs, should be considered carefully.
It would be unfair and unjust if such laws were to end up victimising and unfairly punishing people and businesses for actions which would otherwise be considered normal.
Hence, gaining the trust and public support for the amendments to Act 342 are of paramount importance. We need the Ministry of Health (MOH) to succeed. Effective implementation of the provisions under the law depend on people’s understanding, cooperation and goodwill.
We have seen examples from other countries when all three are lost. Look at what is happening right now in the United Kingdom.
Like many other countries, the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, of which we are already starting to see cases, is at Malaysia’s doorstep. We have to prepare ourselves.
Deferring the proposed amendments today, and with the promise of increased transparency and consultation, will ensure that the MOH is equipped with the necessary tools, mandate, and support, when the bill is tabled in the near future.
To quote Khairy, the MOH must be able to do its work without one hand tied behind its back.
Therefore, we look forward to working with the health minister, the MOH, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, Science and Innovation, and other stakeholders in the health care sector, to ensure that Act 342 is fit-for-purpose and robust in ensuring that the country is prepared and resilient in future disease outbreaks.
We need to not only be prepared for new Covid-19 variants, but also other novel pathogens.
Azrul Mohd Khalib is Chief Executive Officer of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.
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