KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 20 – As thousands of Malaysians grapple with the impact of the worst flood disaster in half a century, the Dewan Rakyat is set today to debate controversial amendments to Act 342.
The Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342) amendment Bill 2021 has already gone through two revisions even before entering committee stage in the House amid public outrage – a rare move in the legislature – after the Bill was tabled in the Dewan Rakyat last Tuesday for first reading.
It is unclear how MPs will vote on the rushed Bill that Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is desperate to push through Parliament, citing the need for the legislation to curb the new Omicron variant that is now the dominant Covid-19 strain in England and is starting to cut into Delta’s dominance in the United States.
Although government Bills in the past were easily passed in Parliament, the unusual groundswell of public anger cutting across racial lines against the proposed Act 342 amendments may cause pause even among Umno MPs.
Lawmakers now will have to decide whether to approve harsher punishments for breaching Covid-19 rules, even as the true damage of floods over the weekend – caused by once-in-a-century heavy rainfall – in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, and Perak – has yet to be ascertained. More than 34,000 flood victims have reportedly been evacuated to relief centres as of yesterday afternoon.
Even up to late Sunday night, Malaysians were still stranded on the roofs of their inundated homes without communications, particularly in Taman Sri Muda in Shah Alam, Malay Mail reported, as the devastating flood has cut off all road access to the housing area.
Yet, MPs – many of whom were participating in flood evacuation and relief efforts, particularly in the Klang Valley – are now forced to go to Parliament to vote on a proposed law with significant ramifications.
Padang Rengas MP Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz told CodeBlue yesterday that Umno wanted the Act 342 amendment Bill to be revised to reduce the maximum compounds for individuals and corporate bodies to RM1,000 and RM500,000 respectively, as well as to have a clear definition of “body corporate” under a new Section 22A.
He pointed out that it’s not only businesses that would be subject to prosecution under Act 342, but also political parties.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) previously issued an RM10,000 compound to Barisan Nasional (BN) for breaching Covid-19 standard operating procedure (SOPs) – namely, not following physical distancing – at its crowded Melaka election campaign machinery launch at the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
“At political party meetings, people take pictures. RM1 million is too much,” Nazri said, noting that even a maximum RM500,000 compound was excessive for organisations like political parties, sports associations, and small businesses.
“We want the half a million [compound] to only be for manufacturing companies.”
Legislation differentiating punishments for criminal offences based on an offender’s socioeconomic background, however, may be unconstitutional, as Article 8 of the Federal Constitution guarantees equality before the law.
A two-hour meeting by Dewan Rakyat’s health, science and innovation special select committee, which is chaired by Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, is scheduled at 8am to deliberate on the Bill with Khairy, Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, and external experts — just two hours before Parliament is scheduled to sit.
Dr Yii told CodeBlue that external experts who have been called to tomorrow’s meeting with his parliamentary select committee (PSC) include infectious disease expert Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, and heads of doctors’ groups like the Malaysian Medical Association and the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations Malaysia.
“The PSC will issue a statement after.”
Pakatan Harapan (PH) chief secretary Saifuddin Nasution Ismail told CodeBlue that Dr Yii, former Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad, and former Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye – all of whom sit on the health PSC – will advise the PH council on how to vote on the Act 342 amendment Bill after the PSC’s meeting.
The crux of the issue is whether more severe punishments – set in the original version of the amendment Bill with maximum compounds of RM10,000 and RM1 million for individuals and corporate bodies respectively, plus up to seven years’ jail upon conviction – will enable MOH to more effectively prevent and control transmission of Covid-19, particularly the highly transmissible Omicron variant now said by some American epidemiologists to be as contagious or more contagious than measles.
Malaysian doctors maintain that the proposed amendments to Act 342 cannot achieve this objective, pointing out that the criminalisation of infectious disease would instead deter reporting of Covid-19 cases.
Besides the quantum of punishments that has been fiercely opposed by the general public and medical experts, the amendment Bill also contains several other disputed provisions, such as proposed revisions to Section 10(2) that requires medical practitioners to notify MOH of “suspected” cases of infectious disease.
Doctors say that this opens them up to medical liability litigation should laboratory testing later disprove suspected notification of Covid-19 cases. They also noted that notifying Covid-19 infections only based on suspicion – instead of diagnosis – would involve notifying cases of upper respiratory tract infections, like fever, sore throat, and cold, that number more than 100,000 nationwide daily seen at general practitioner (GP) clinics.
The amendment Bill further expands enforcement of Covid standard operating procedures (SOPs) to local authorities, despite their lack of understanding about public health and the constantly evolving coronavirus.
MOH’s proposed new Section 21A provides the Health director-general with significant, vague, and unfettered powers, stating that he or she may “issue any directions in any manner, whether generally or specifically, to any person or class of persons to take such measures for the purpose of preventing and controlling any infectious disease”.
Thus, MPs will have to decide whether giving MOH unchecked powers to do as they like and the threat of harsh criminal sanctions will indeed prevent and reduce Covid-19 cases with the highly contagious Omicron variant.