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Managing Covid and the nation: The urgent need to re-strategise policy measures and approaches

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz

21 July 2021

a) Recovery from the Covid pandemic

b) Economic and socio-economic recovery of the nation during and post-pandemic

c) Evaluation of existing measures

While some results have been seen during the last 15 months of the Covid pandemic, Malaysia needs to re-strategise policy measures in the fight against Covid-19 and the many serious cross-cutting impacts within the society and economy.

By now, it is clear that the frontliners continue to be hard-pressed in managing the rising numbers of Covid patients in public and private hospitals with shortages of equipment and vital facilities as well as supporting human resources. But the decision-makers, such as in MKN, and in the vaccination committee, however, have not been able to present and implement, coherent, sensible, and effective policy measures.

As a result, there continue to be uncertainties, confusion, and concern within society at large and amongst the various stakeholders in the economy and the nation as a whole.

the various forms of lockdowns, although with the best of intentions, have not been well implemented.

Such incoherent lockdowns have had a negative and serious effects on the economy, the lifeblood of any nation, and on vulnerable sectors of society.

It's very clear that these strict measures were taken because they were necessary to curb the rate of infections.

However, there were no engagements with the relevant stakeholders from SMEs to the larger industrial and business entities.

The listing out of " essential" and "non-essential" businesses and sectors did not have any valid reasons and sensible criteria.

Worse still, the seemingly random listings have shown up the failure to look at the role of particular market entities in the different production value chains in any sector. As a result, the lockdowns have "paralysed" the industries that are vital to the economy and livelihoods.

The export-oriented industries have been forced to close, rendering them unable to meet contractual obligations. And Malaysian, as well as Malaysian-based companies will stand to lose overseas markets!

The SMEs, many of which constitute a strong pillar of the economy, have been badly affected. The Small and Medium Enterprises Association of Malaysia reported that more than 100,000 Small and Medium-sized companies have ceased operations since last year, and another 50,000 more are expected to fold up in the coming few months. This alone has resulted in the retrenchments of an untold number of workers, loss of incomes for families and individuals, and the ensuing stresses of trying to sustain daily living.

Never has the country witnessed long queues of people waiting for food and assistance from well-meaning Groups and Associations, especially those who responded to the needy who have desperately hoisted the white flags.

When any business entity in any sector is forced to shut down, it will result in long-term and cascading, negative socioeconomic impact across society. In fact, the Minister of Entrepreneur Development and Cooperatives himself had revealed that a recent survey conducted by the Ministry estimated that 580,000 businesses, half of which are in the SME category, that account for 40 per cent of the country's GDP, are at risk of failing if they are not allowed to open up their operations by October this year.

The fallout from these massive business closures would also mean that more than some 7 million workers are expected to be unemployed. And assuming that each worker has an average of two dependents, another 14 million or virtually almost half of Malaysia's population, will be hit hard.

This absolutely grim scenario, already looming on the horizon, flies in the face of reality in the current haphazard, prolonged lockdowns. They will only create a domino effect hitting society hard at the very core, leading to unimaginable serious social and economic devastation. It will take a very long time for the country to recover.

Therefore, it is time for coherent and comprehensive measures on how to deal with this impending economic disaster other than merely imposing lockdowns. It is a matter of urgency!

Undertaking vaccination within the economic sectors during the lockdowns

Those responsible for the National Vaccination Programme, in particular the coordinating minister Khairy Jamaluddin, should have by now realised the mistake of not giving from day one, the priority to workers in all of the nation's industrial sectors, in the vaccination process.

The workforce keeping the economy going and sustaining livelihoods should have been fully vaccinated by now instead of still waiting in endless queues. If they had been prioritised, then the tens of thousands of companies would have been allowed to continue their operations, even under the various lockdowns. Their employees would have received their vaccination, even for the first dose, and to be followed up quickly with the second one. And there would not be those industry clusters, which make up 48 per cent of the total Covid clusters.

The failure in identifying the key growth trigger sectors in the vaccination priority order has continued to prove to be very costly to the people and country. In fact, the damage is, as yet, not quantified and it will have long-term repercussions. Vaccination is accepted globally as pivotal in managing the Covid pandemic, especially as new variants have begun to emerge.

It is time to ensure that the existing approaches toward vaccination are fine-tuned. Provide vaccinations at the grassroots level, not merely continue with the mega centres. Vaccination should be "in situ" where the target groups are at the District and Sub District levels using all the public facilities available within the grassroots communities.

These include the small government health clinics, community centres, organizing mobile vaccination clinics, drive-in locations, and such effective outreach approaches at the grassroots level itself.

Granted that due to the worldwide demand for vaccines, there are supply constraints. And in addition, there is the critical need to put in place the proper logistics in order to preserve vaccine efficacy. But that alone should make it more imperative for Malaysia to widen the sources of vaccines to secure and beef up Malaysia's vaccine stockpile and procuring vaccines that are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). Limiting our procurements to just two or three vaccine sources has contributed somewhat to the current slow pace of vaccination.

Review of vaccination hours

It is time to review the now-limited vaccination hours. A re-thinking is needed to enable some night-time vaccination in order to accelerate the coverage of people to be vaccinated. In addition, special effort must be made to reach out to vaccinate those living in areas with no or little internet coverage, rendering them unable to use the MySejahtera facility. Most likely, such groups may be unable to get vaccinated if no effort is made to reach out to them where they are.

Certainly, the re-strategising would require a clear understanding of the key drivers of the nation, the implementation of realistic approaches on a parallel track to both manage the Covid-19 pandemic, and at the same time managing the economy (with the spinoffs to the rest of the Society and the Country).

It is not merely a "Covid recovery plan”. It is, in parallel, also about national economic and socio-economic recovery. That is how the country is going to move forward in the key areas in the new normal environment, such as:

- The economic sector, especially the key growth drivers, education, social, and healthcare.

- Improving Malaysia's competitiveness in attracting investments into identified strategic areas and competing in the regional and global markets.

- Reviving the affected subsectors which are important components in the various production value chains.

- Reviewing existing policies that during the pandemic has proven cumbersome, constraining, and counterproductive.

It is important to keep politics out of the equation so that any policy measure is not made ineffective and useless due to political considerations.

The government needs to work on the twin recovery plans, simultaneously.


Former Federal Minister

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