Since May 1, 2022, many of the Covid-19 restrictions that were imposed have been lifted, much to the relief of members of the public and businesses everywhere.
We have all returned to work, MySejahtera is now mostly optional, and we are allowed to be free of our masks outdoors. There is a light feeling of joy in the air, partly due to the long-delayed family reunions during this Hari Raya Aidilfitri. but also a sense that perhaps, we have successfully overcome the pandemic.
We have not.
As the government and its experts tell us, we will likely have to live with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. This is sadly not a victory. What it is, is a hard-won stalemate with the virus.
We are stuck, as we have been unable to eradicate the virus. We don’t know how to do this without decimating the economy, livelihoods, and the public’s mental health.
We have, however, successfully tamed the spread and severity of the virus through widespread vaccination and our public health response.
This stalemate, however, is unlikely to last, nor should we expect it to.
What we have done is ride out a wave in this pandemic. But so long as the virus remains at large, especially in many large pockets of unvaccinated populations, the waves will keep coming. New variants will continue to emerge.
While some variants will come and go unnoticed, vaccinated as we are, other variants may bypass our defences completely and once again cause us grief. It would be a nightmare for such a variant to hit us when we have removed so many of our protective measures. The cost of having to reinstate many of these harsh measures will be brutal.
How do we then live with Covid-19? We cannot leave ourselves defenceless, only to reinstate restrictions when the number of cases and deaths surge again. But we may not have to go back to the old measures.
We now know much more about the virus and how it spreads. We know that the virus is airborne; measures that we previously implemented based on the assumption that it spread through droplets and surfaces can be put aside, while new measures that focus on the sanitisation of rooms where people gather to work, pray, travel, and play can be put into force.
Some measure of readiness must be maintained to face any future waves. We have learnt how threadbare our public health system has become, and an infusion of resources allowed it to be resilient enough to carry the Malaysian public through the Omicron wave.
The public health system must be durable, and have some spare capacity to stretch, if it is to serve as our nation’s safety net.
The public-and-private collaboration for nationwide vaccination must be kept alive and ready for reactivation should the need for further boosters or different vaccines emerge.
The collaboration with general practitioners, in particular, should be made permanent, and be extended to other medical conditions such as non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Vaccines, diagnostic tests, and antivirals must be kept widely available at the lowest cost possible to ensure that all Malaysians will be able to access them.
This will require a combination of promoting local production of these now-essential items, controlling prices, as well as working with governments globally to ensure that supply bottlenecks do not emerge as a result of intellectual property regulations abuse and excessive profiteering.
Above all, we have to place the most vulnerable among us at the heart of our protective measures and plans. If we can put into place systems and processes that are good enough to ensure that the old, the young, and the disabled are safely protected from the virus, we can rest assured that those systems and processes are good enough for the rest of us to live with Covid-19.
Mark Cheong is a public health researcher and lecturer at the School of Pharmacy, Monash University Malaysia.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.