On this day last year, Malaysia reported its first case of COVID-19. The initial wave was very small, mostly a few tourists from China. We then had a short period with no cases, and then the big second wave hit and we were reporting 3-digit new cases on a daily basis. As the pandemic was still in its infancy we didn't know what to expect. Everyone freaked out, panic buying ensued, and we entered lockdown for a few months starting in March. The country's initial handling of the outbreak was very good. So good in fact that the country was receiving international praise and recognition. We managed to flatten the curve and around mid-2020 we returned to reporting zero daily cases for a few days and things started returning back to normal. Well, the "new normal". Then, as the old saying goes, shit hit the fan. On this one-year anniversary, we are experiencing a massive third wave which makes the previous wave look minuscule in comparison. Malaysia is reporting 4-digit daily cases of COVID-19, we are in another nationwide lockdown, and there seems to be no end in sight. So what happened in the past year? How did things go from so good to so bad? Allow me to take you on a "brief" look back through Malaysia's journey handling the COVID-19 outbreak.
Politics destroyed all our good work
As with most things in life, politics destroyed everything we worked hard to achieve. After the first wave died down, a mass gathering of over 16,000 people took place over a period of a few days which caused the second wave. At the time there was no ban on mass gatherings yet, but the initial response to this event was delayed because while the event was ongoing we were without a government. Malaysia was without a government during this time because of the political coup that caused a collapse of our elected government, making way for what I call a "backdoor" government; one that came into power without being elected (many of the points I am about to bring up will revolved around this backdoor government).
So politics caused the second wave, or at the very least, led to circumstances which prevented any meaningful action from being taken in an appropriate amount of time. You'd think that our politicians would have learned their lesson. Nope. The third wave which we are currently experiencing was caused by yet another political mess, this time involving the state of Sabah. The state was already a COVID-19 hot-spot while the rest of the country seemed to be doing quite well. Yet for some reason, members of the ruling backdoor government wanted to steal this state from the opposition (who might I remind you, were originally elected). To prevent this from happening, the state government dissolved, forcing a by-election. Sabahans from all over the country had to return to vote, and in the most bizarre move, our government said they wouldn't need to quarantine upon returning from Sabah after voting. All this travelling and lack of quarantine eventually spread the virus from Sabah back to the other states, and bam, third wave. Our (backdoor) Prime Minister even admitted that this election caused the spike in cases that we are currently seeing.
Surely now after these two incidents you'd think that our government would've learned their lesson. Nope. The government's majority following the coup was always very slim, and over time more and more Members of Parliament (MPs) have lost faith in their leadership, retracting their support for the ruling coalition. Some politicians seeing this instability sought to call for an election. We saw what an election did in Sabah, and now these politicians want the entire nation to go for election? Needless to say, such an absurd suggestion was even criticised by other politicians. But the politicking didn't stop there. More MPs withdrew their support for the government, to the point where they lost their majority. Anticipating the worst, our King then declared a state of emergency, suspending Parliament and putting an end to any possibility of an election. This emergency will go on until August, and hopefully by then we will have controlled this third wave. We'll probably get an election soon after that, but if we still can't properly contain the virus, who knows what will happen.
Incompetent Ministers and Ministries
What's ironic about this backdoor government is that after unceremoniously stealing power, they ended up being rather bad at their jobs which they coveted so much. Our Health Minister for example at the beginning of the pandemic told people on national TV that drinking warm water can help prevent COVID-19 infection. The Women and Family Ministry, in an effort to curb domestic disputes while families are stuck at home together, urged wives to "wear makeup and dress neatly", and to speak like Doraemon and laugh femininely. Meanwhile, our Higher Education Minister instead of helping students and teachers adapt to online learning and ensuring all Malaysians have online access for education, decided to organise a TikTok competition. Needless to say, these are all very clear examples of why this government wasn't elected in the first place.
There is however, a silver lining. When people in power do nothing, someone else usually steps in to take matters into their own hands. Enter Ebit Lew, a local preacher and successful entrepreneur who has made a name for himself by helping those that nobody else will. Throughout the pandemic he has been going around the country using his own wealth and resources to help those in need. Among those he has helped include school bus drivers who have lost their income due to school closures, and university students who were stranded on campus after the government decided to close universities without much warning. He also bought tablets for students to use for their online learning. He bought water tankers for residents who were experiencing water cuts (which happens way to often!), while on the opposite end of the spectrum he brought aid to residents who are currently struggling with floods. Even our animals in the National Zoo received aid from the man. Many people have said that he's doing more to help Malaysians than the government, and I agree with that assessment.
Confusing SOPs and Movement Control Orders
One of the biggest talking points over the past year has been Malaysia's implementation of our Movement Control Order (MCO), which is the terminology given for our lockdowns. Like most countries, Malaysia has various levels of the MCO which is meant to reflect what activities are or aren't allowed. Some nations use a simple numerical system, but in Malaysia we have the MCO, Conditional MCO (CMCO), Recovery MCO (RMCO), Enhanced MCO (EMCO), Semi-Enhanced MCO (SEMCO), Targeted EMCO (TEMCO), and Administrative EMCO (AEMCO). Needless to say the naming scheme could have been made simpler, but what makes matters worse is that the drafting and announcements of SOPs tend to be delayed. What typically happens is the government will announce the dates for the MCO (or a variant) and where it will be implemented, but the full SOPs will only be announced the following day(s), leaving people confused. I don't know why the SOPs aren't ready from the get go, and even opposition MPs have asked the same thing.
Delayed and confusing SOPs affect everyone, from kindergarteners to university students, employees and patrons of gas stations, people who want to go to parks for recreational activities, families who at one point could only travel two people at a time in a car before it was later increased, to cashiers who were told by police to wear gloves at work, even though it's not part of the government-mandated SOP.
Our government could do a lot better with regards to the preparations and announcements of the MCO and SOPs. The latest gaff came just this month where certain states were placed under MCO and others weren't, depending on the current COVID-19 situation of each state. That in itself wasn't a problem, but the government allowed interstate travel before the implementation of the MCO, which meant that people could travel back to their hometowns, unwittingly bringing the virus along with them. Surely enough after the MCO was announced in a select few states, now almost the entire country is under MCO again thanks to all the interstate travel.
Double standards in SOP enforcement
Many Malaysians have vented their frustration on social media for what many perceive to be double standards in the implementation of SOPs during the MCO. Ordinary citizens get fined and arrested for the smallest of infractions, yet Ministers who do worst seem to get away scot-free. The anger was so tangible that even the PM had to give a statement reassuring everyone that no such double standards exist (though if people believe him or not is another matter).
One of the biggest cases that got people talking this past year involves a teenager who was issued a RM1000 (~$250) fine on the spot for temporarily pulling down his face mask at a train station. This was caught on camera and reported by local news, so it quickly went viral online and people were in an uproar. Meanwhile, a Minister supposedly did not observe the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon returning to Malaysia from overseas, yet after weeks of investigating no action was taken against him. In a separate case, the daughter of a politician was found guilty of flouting MCO rules yet was only issued a RM800 fine, leaving many to claim that she received a secret politician discount. There are many other cases of civilians being fined on the spot (like this one where a woman was fined the moment she stepped out of her car) while Ministers get away with breaching SOPs so flagrantly, and it just makes people furious.
Another case involved Top Glove, possibly the biggest manufacturer of rubber gloves in the world, which is kind of a big deal now because of the pandemic. The company was found to have breached workplace SOPs yet was only fined RM1000, which is the same as the fine issued to the teenager I mentioned earlier. Hardly seems fair, does it?
This has been a pretty bleak look back so far, so I want to end on a positive note. As with every country facing the pandemic, Malaysia too has paid tributes to our frontliners in various forms of expression. Some of the more memorable tributes came in the form of murals (like the hero image of this post) that were spotted across the country. While doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers were obviously in the spotlight, food delivery riders also had their status elevated from mere gig economy workers to frontliners, keeping Malaysians fed during the MCOs. People showed their appreciation to food delivery riders by treating them to some free meals, and one story which went viral recently showcased a snackbar that was setup outside a home for the riders.
And here we are now, one year after COVID-19 came to Malaysia. Things are not looking good at the moment, and with stricter SOPs being rumoured amidst a total economic lockdown, it seems like things will only get worse before they get better. Our government seems to have lost control and failed to handle this outbreak after showing some promise in the earlier stages. We're expecting to get the vaccine starting from next month, but the vaccine won't make an impact in the short term. I hope things get better sooner rather than later, but in all honesty, I think 2021 will still be the year of COVID-19.