Re-Think The Conditional MCO, Please

A stretch of vehichles queue for inspection at a police roadblock ereted to combat the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak at Jalan Kuala Kangsar, Ipoh – RONNIE CHIN/The Star

Locking down a country is an expensive exercise, no doubt.  After 45 days and almost RM63 billion loss made, the government has decided to loosen the Movement Control Order (MCO) a bit to kickstart the economy.

The announcement of a Conditional MCO (C-MCO) by the Prime Minister was made as part of his Labour Day speech.  Most sectors of the economy will be allowed to operate again on Monday 4 May 2020, except those that involve services where physical contact cannot be avoided, or where crowd control is virtually impossible.  Restaurants are allowed to operate as long as they meet requirements such as checking the body temperature of customers, prepare a registry for customers to leave their contact details in case contact tracing is required, maintaining a 2-meter distance between tables, and place lines on the floor for customers to queue before paying their bill.

Offices, too, should produce their own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and prepare physical health risk mitigation measures such as providing body temperature checks, separating cubicles, common area and items cleaning procedures, flexible working times so that workers do not all come to the office at the same time, and so on.

For those who are health-conscious, they can now resume jogging, or riding their bicycle, play tennis, badminton or even golf – as long as social distancing is maintained and not done in a large group.

Some say it is high time that the government returns the responsibility of not spreading the virus back to the public.  After all, it is not like the virus is going to go away in such a short time.  It will take another two years before the war against COVID-19 can be won.  Therefore, we should learn to live with it.  Just follow the recommendations: maintain your social distance and wash your hands thoroughly more frequently.

The only problem is rules and regulations to Malaysians are like bicycles are to fish.  They just don’t care.  Almost immediately after the announcement was made, traffic on the road increased, parents took their children out to do groceries, some are already without face masks.  Wet markets no longer see social distancing.  Videos and photos of the Batu Berendam Wholesale Market, the Sumayyah Market in Tumpat, and the Taman Maluri Wet Market showed that it was free for all again.  That night and even last night, cars were back on the roads while motorcycles raced through the wee hours of the morning. And to top that all off, a policeman was killed by a speeding Toyota Hilux driven by a drunk driver!

I understand that it is costing the government in the region of RM2.4 billion for every day that the economy is under a lockdown.  I understand the need to kickstart the economy so that money could be made and jobs could be saved.  But pray tell, how does playing tennis or going jogging help kickstart the economy?

The announcement of the implementation of the Conditional MCO was made on a Friday, such wrong timing, because the implementation starts the following Monday.  There is not enough time for companies to have SOPs and physical health risk mitigation steps in place.  I do not know why is there a rush to get things done but this is just like that stupid decision to allow barbers and hairdressers to operate – a decision that was rescinded the following day.

The government should have given time between Monday 4 May to Friday 8 May for these measures to be in place first and announce the first day of work as Monday 11 May instead.

It is also good that restaurants are allowed to open, but dining-in is really not necessary.  Most restaurants have remained open since the start of the MCO to allow operators to deliver food to customers or for them to do self-pickup.  Yes, sales must have been a lot less than normal then, but how many tables and chairs can a restaurant have with social distancing being a prerequisite?  The whole idea of an MCO is to reduce exposure to the Coronavirus.  People will be going back to work and will definitely need to eat.  Therefore, I think it would be wiser to maintain restaurant operations for takeaways and deliveries as the volume of sales will go up anyway.  That would help reduce the exposure to the Coronavirus.

According to Dr Phillippa Lally, a Senior Research Fellow at the University College’s Behavioural Science and Health department, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact.  What it means is that it takes 66 days for this new habit of wearing face mask, washing of hands for more than 20 seconds, social distancing and so on would take 66 days before it becomes a habit.

For that reason, during the first three months of military training no recruit or officer cadet are allowed to have visitors or go on outings because new values are being grinded into them.  Once these values have become a new habit, they are allowed some freedom.  These new habits will only become a lifestyle in six months, the time that they are allowed to graduate.  For officer cadets, they spend another six months being turned into officers from mere soldiers.

Even Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit agrees that the Conditional MCO has been introduced too early.  Citing the 95 local transmissions out of 105 new cases on Saturday, the Nipah virus expert said that there are still too many local transmissions for the government to relax the MCO.

The academician who was involved in the discovery of the Nipah virus in 1998 said in a press statement that he does not object to the loosening of MCO, but the relaxation is far too much and too soon.

“With the relaxation of MCO, there is every likelihood of a surge of new clusters and cases. Can we really cope with increased testing and contact tracing?

“Can we empower and engage the community to do their part in preventing the spread of the coronavirus?” he asked.

He expressed concerns that if the country faces a resurgence of cases, the MCO would have to be reinstated and what had been undertaken would be wasted.  Already on Sunday 3 May, we are seeing 122 new cases, with only 52 imported cases while 70 others are local transmissions.  There were two deaths as well.

The government should seriously re-think this Conditional MCO and not bow down to any pressure given by any quarter.  It was doing very well with its way of handling the COVID-19 crisis and citizens sang praises for it, until the PM decided to announce the Conditional MCO.

(This article was first published by The Mole )

RMO Day 26

Graph showing COVID-19 total cases, daily cases, total recovered, daily recovered, and total deaths in Malaysia from 11 March 2020 till 12 April 2020

Every day at 5pm I would listen in to the daily briefing by the DG Health Ministry. Although I applaud the efforts being done by the Ministry, I should caution against any form of optimism. Today, 12 April 2020, is no different. It is the 26th day of the Restricted Movement Order.

In the first graph, the blue line at the top represents total number of cases while the grey line beneath it represents total number of those who have recovered. Optimally, we should see the blue line tapering and flattening, the grey line showing exponential increase whilst decreasing the gap between the two. It is only when the blue line flattens and the grey line crosses it could be breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

Graphs showing daily COVID-19 deaths and recovered cases in Malaysia from 11 March 2020 till 12 April 2020

In the second graphs, you can see that the number of daily deaths is showing a steady increase while those who have recovered daily is going on a downward trend. Our percentage of deaths have increased from 1.58 percent to 1.62 percent of total cases. 

Sure, today we also saw a drop in the number of daily new cases, but we are still getting at least 150 new cases daily. And there still are thousands of results pending, and I am sure a huge number of those with the virus still undetected.

If anyone is optimistic that we are winning the war, that certain sectors of industries ought to be allowed to operate, or that internal borders should be re-opened to allow movements, think again.

This war is far from over.