We’re in a critical stage in the race to end the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, with rising daily infection cases, deaths hitting record levels and an overstretched healthcare system. Vaccinations, though, have picked up but still at a slow rate. The enormous task ahead is to increase the vaccine supply and accelerate vaccination during the three phases of a nationwide lockdown (FMCO), covering two to four weeks.
Throughout our fighting journey against the unprecedented pandemic, the implementation of the different phases of movement restrictions, relaxation and reopening (MCO 1.0, MCO 2.0, Conditional MCO, Enhanced MCO and Recovery MCO) come with considerable social, economic and political consequences.
We are now racing against time. The next two to four weeks of FMCO give us the much-needed breathing space to manage the inflection level; and relieve the healthcare.
More urgently, we must continue to ramp up mass testing, diagnostic checking, contact tracing and isolation as well as getting more people vaccinated, say at least 30% (9.8 million persons) of targeted population having one dose from 2.36 million persons as of 5 June 2021.
It was observed that with the exception of MCO 1.0, we were unable to contain the virus spread and flattened the infections to an acceptable and manageable level during the movement restrictions.
What has gone wrong? Pandemic fatigue causing the authorities and people to let down their guard in curbing the virus transmission; premature withdrawal or excessive relaxation of MCO restrictions; confusing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), the lax enforcement, inconsistency and double-standards in the compliance of SOP have caused the public to be less compliant despite the hefty fines.
The lessons we should have learned relate to the leadership, public communication, SOP, public self-discipline, and the ethics of implementation and enforcement.
What’s next after these two weeks of lockdown? We have to start planning and preparing now as we move to the second phase of FMCO (a 4-week period starting on 15 June) so as to ensure a smooth transition of implementation and avoid market confusion.
The phases of safe transition from allowing more economic sectors or some social activities, to safe reopening of the economy for returning to normalcy will be guided by the level of infectivity and vaccination rate.
A responsible and safe transition to reopening framework covers good and clear communication, gaining public trust and co-operation, influencing public behaviour in compliance, ethics as well as the enforcement of SOP during the lockdown, transition and reopening.
1.Start early engaging with the industry stakeholders in the preparation of SOP and get them out at least three days before the date of implementation. This allows time for businesses to get ready and make the necessary arrangements.
2.Clearly defined SOP (simple, consistent, and clear dos and don’ts) to avoid confusion and misinterpretation of the rules and regulations by the law enforcers. Rules have so many exceptions which make them next to impossible to apply and enforce. Whatever rules and SOP we choose to enforce hurts someone.
3.The SOP is to be standardised and uniformly applied at the federal, state and local authority. Make the SOP available in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mandarin and Tamil.
4.For ease of confusion and better compliance, we can consider implementing a tiered system and colour-coded SOP to signify different stages of movement restrictions. The COVID-19 risk assessment will be measured by the level of infectivity: (1) Red (Widespread); (2) Orange (Substantial); (3) Yellow (Moderate); and (4) Green (Minimal). This provides clearer information on the various protocols and restrictions that will apply.
5.The staged lifting of movement restrictions and reopening will be pegged to the level of vaccination rate, the level of compliance as well as the number of infections as follows:
6.The level of infections has to come down continuously for at least 14 days in a row;
7.Making use of vaccination as the basis for adjusting physical distancing measures in the food and beverage sector, social gatherings, leisure sports, religious congregations as well as border control measures, say, visiting tourist attractions and indoor recreation places. For example, Ontario (Canada), uses a three-step vaccination threshold to draw up a roadmap for reopening: (a) Step 1; 60% adults with one dose; (b) Step 2: 70% adults with one dose; 20% fully vaccinated; and (c) Step 3: 70-80% adults with one dose; 25% fully vaccinated;
It is crucial to instil public trust in the Government and Ministry of Health to secure citizen support and, hence, lead to greater compliance. Transparent disclosure of accurate information, effective communication and timely dissemination of granular data in this critical period is crucial as misinformation undermines the public health response and aggravates public anxiety.
Public response suggests a desire for clear and undisputable rules backed by hard and irrefutable evidence. In New Zealand and Singapore, a clear alert level system was publicised, with graduated levels of response based on the threat being faced, and simple, understandable rules and restrictions that came along with them.
Lee Heng Guie is Executive Director of the Socio-Economic Research Centre (SERC).