Not suitable for TheStar by Marina Mahathir

Marina Mahathir for the Sunday Star (the commentary below has been rejected for publication by TheStar newspaper):

I watched a video the other day, put out by the Prime Minister’s Office no less, where the PM is seen being greeted like a rock star by a whole bunch of women clad in pink. They screamed and jostled to see him through glass, their phones held high to record the moment. When you begin the video, you would be forgiven for thinking some K-pop star was passing by.

But there was something surreal about the scene. The setting was the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park in Serdang (MAEPS) where people who test positive for Covid-19 but who are still well are sent to be sequestered from other people, including their families, friends and work colleagues. It is a 2-week quarantine in a facility where we have seen scenes of crowded halls full of bunk beds placed closely together and a lot of bored people trying to amuse themselves.

It was strange to see women squealing at the sight of a politician, safely separated from them by glass, when he is the reason they are there in the first place. Unless the sound had been manipulated to seem joyful, I would have thought that curses would be the more appropriate greeting. Not that I don’t believe that quarantine is the best approach to protect the uninfected, but the fact that there needs to be airplane-hangar-sized facilities to house them only underscores the fact that we seem to have lost the plot. There must surely be some cognitive dissonance when people are cheering the guy whose incompetence made them sick.

One year after the virus landed on our shores, one year of having to endure being kept confined in our homes, one year of a lot of people losing their incomes and businesses, people are still thrilled to see the leaders who got us here. Perhaps that aphorism ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ is very true after all. Apart from migrant workers and prisoners, the ones who have suffered most from the ad-hoc way our government has handled the virus are low-income groups, daily wage workers, Makcik Kiah and her stall and yet, if you believe that video, they seem to be the ones who are most forgetful of all.

While they were cheering, they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that those who are supposed to represent them, are no longer doing so. Apparently because of too much distracting ‘politicking’, the Emergency Ordinance was necessary. But the declaration of Emergency in itself was an act of politicking. It adds nothing to the Covid response except to stifle criticism of the way the government is (mis)handling the pandemic. Very tellingly, a senior government servant admitted that the Emergency Ordinance ‘was very useful in forging cooperation with private hospitals’. Apparently, this cooperation could not be done through discussion and negotiation, only through strong-arming them. In fact, an Emergency is a akin to a bludgeon, the resort of those who know they’re standing on very wobbly ground.

Much has been made of the supposed recalcitrance of the Malaysian public to follow SOPs, hence the reason why our numbers are increasing. Yet for almost a year we have become well-versed in the wearing of masks, signing in with QR codes, having our temperatures taken and staying far away from people whose Covid status we are uncertain of. We know that the largest numbers have come from people who are unable to protect themselves through these same measures such as in prisons and in factories. It’s not their fault, nor is it that of the rest of us. We’ve done our part as best as we can and for a while the fruits of our sacrifices were apparent. But that was also the time when our leaders should have been looking ahead at where the hotspots were likely to arise, that is, anywhere crowded where people have no option to socially-distance and taken preventive measures.

Why impose EMCOs on prisons after 50 people have already been infected in those places? Shouldn’t two or three have been enough warning, given the conditions in there? Why the shock at the living conditions of foreign workers now when they’ve had to endure those for years? Is this the result of neglect, of purposeful blindness? Couple that with this greed for power that caused a state election and then a refusal to quarantine every single person who had been exposed, why should the general public be blamed? Are the stark conditions at MAEPS only for stubborn citizens and not for recalcitrant politicians?

A recent article in Bloomberg’s news service lists out the best and worst places to be during the pandemic. New Zealand and Singapore are the places who have best managed the crisis. In fact, most of the best-managed countries have been in Asia and the Pacific, including China. But there’s a coda here. “The under-performance of some of the world’s most prominent democracies including the U.S. and the U.K. contrasted with the success of authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam has raised questions over whether democratic societies are cut out for tackling pandemics,” Bloomberg’s researchers note.

Lest anyone starts nodding their heads ready with their I-told-you-so’s, they added this: “Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking tells a different story: democracies have made up the majority of the top 10 since the debut of this Ranking in November. Success in containing Covid-19 with the least disruption appears to rely less on being able to order people into submission and more on governments fostering a high degree of trust and societal compliance.

“When citizens have faith in the authorities and their guidance, lockdowns may not be needed at all, as Japan and South Korea showed through most of the year.”

The operative words here are ‘trust’ and ‘faith’ in the government. In countries where citizens have a say in what needs to be done and are confident that their government is looking after their best interests, they will do their duty for the good of all. But when they see inconsistent policies, a lack of a clear plan and blatant unfairness in the way different classes of people are treated, then how can anyone not get cynical about the entire response? Endless lockdowns, with all their attendant miseries, seem to be the default setting for people who have run out of ideas.

One clear indication of this cluelessness is the lack of respect for the more than 700 people who have died from Covid, apart from the occasional well-known personality. Every single death is a loss to the country, no matter whether they are old, young, poor, rich, doctors, nurses, the local bus drivers or stallholders. They left behind people who are grieving not just for the loss of their loved one but for a life that is no longer as before. Do any of our leaders have a single word of sympathy for the bereaved widows, children, work colleagues and friends of the dead? Or even for those who survived but will have health problems for a long time? Or have they been reduced to mere numbers that are announced ad nauseam every day?

Marina Mahathir is wondering what Malaysians did to deserve such incompetent leaders. Oh ya, we didn’t vote for them.

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