Commentary: Malaysia a kinder and stronger society six months into COVID-19 fight
As Malaysia shifts into a new phase of its COVID-19 fight, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Kevin Zhang shares reflections of how the country has helped the vulnerable in trying times.
SINGAPORE: As Malaysia moves into a new phase of its coronavirus, with the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) set to continue until the end of 2020, fatigue in the country is setting in.
Malaysians generally understand and support these stringent measures to curb the risks of a spread, after witnessing second waves of infections across the world.
In this context, it’s worth remembering how far the country has come and how COVID-19 has demonstrated cohesiveness among Malaysians.
THE SCARE OF A SUPER-SPREADER EVENT
Malaysia’s tribulation began six months ago when it experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases starting from Mar 15, with more than 100 new infections per day.
Most of the surge in infections were traced to a 16,000-strong religious event held in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur organised by the Islamic missionary group Tabligh Jamaat.
Not long after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in, the Malaysian government moved swiftly to impose the Movement Control Order (MCO) on Mar 18 and ramped up healthcare and testing capacities.
The MCO made the sum difference in bringing the spread to heel, along with the willingness of businesses, communities and Malaysians to comply. Within two months the reproduction rate of COVID-19 declined spectacularly from the initial 3.5 to 0.3.
While COVID-19 would not have been contained without a strong, effective government response, Malaysians from all walks of life also actively contributed in tackling the health crisis through a series of bottom-up initiatives and brought hope to the marginalised in society.
NGOS ROSE TO HELP WITH MASKS
As COVID-19 intensified, the demand for face masks surged with three-ply surgical masks rising to RM2 a piece in late March.
While the Malaysian government imposed an export ban and a price ceiling, civil society groups moved into action to help supply low-income Malaysians, particularly large households.
Non-government organisation (NGO) Yayasan Kebajikan Suria Johor Bahru (YBS) started an initiative to deliver face masks and other essential food supplies to needy residents in Johor Bahru, and had distributed close to RM600,000 worth of financial aid, infant formula and food packets as of end June.
By end-March, even more NGOs and social enterprises got together to form a network of tailors who worked to sew and deliver cloth masks when national supplies started to dwindle, spearheaded by Komuniti Tukang Jahit, SUKA Society and Caremongering Malaysia Community.
UNCLOGGING BARRIERS TO ECONOMIC AID
Malaysians also moved to help those economically disenfranchised, whose livelihoods and access to daily necessities were impacted by the10km travel radius imposed by the MCO.
While the Malaysian government had devised various assistance programmes and cash handouts to aid struggling low-income households, about 8.2 million, including marginalised communities comprising the Orang Asli, migrants and refugees, were excluded from such schemes where many were not registered with agencies disbursing aid, according to researchers Bridget Welsh and Calvin Cheng in an April opinion piece in Malaysiakini.
For those eligible, access to physical aid was also a chief problem for rural areas given the challenges of poor digital and physical connectivity.
Local administrative networks were weak, with the Perikatan Nasional state officials for Johor, Perak and Melaka only assuming their positions in early March, leaving a gap between the initial outbreak of the coronavirus and the appointment of village heads who typically play an important role in implementing governmental assistance schemes.
A mini crisis had erupted when Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced in end-March that the Welfare Department would be taking over distribution of aid, working with the Malaysian Armed Forces and the People’s Volunteer Corps.
Their limitations were quickly made apparent, as the department became overwhelmed with phonecalls from thousands of Malaysians stranded without assistance. Mr Ismail’s directive was rescinded within days.
FAMILIES AND COMMUNITIES FACING ECONOMIC HARDSHIPS GET AID
Indeed, it was NGOs and citizen-led initiatives, with the networks, intelligence and the ability to mobilise untapped resources that arrested the precarity of Malaysia’s most vulnerable population groups.
Kelab Alami Mukim Tanjung Kupang in Gelang Patah for instance, launched a Big Fish Bailout, buying excess catch from fishermen who used to sell a sizeable share to restaurants but saw a sharp decline in business and plummeting incomes with the onset of MCO.
These were delivered to homes, shelters and low-income families in Johor Bahru, in collaboration with other NGOs in the Iskandar Malaysia Social Heroes Network.
Since April, a COVID-19 Orang Asli Fund, established as a joint project between three Malaysian-based NGOs namely the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), Raleigh International Kuala Lumpur and Impian Malaysia. The fund disbursed food assistance to indigenous people who faced barriers in selling their rubber and palm oil produce and could not afford food supplies and other necessities during the MCO.
NGOs also became platforms for local businesses, foundations and expatriate communities to plug in to sponsor aid and support existing schemes like the MyKasih food aid programme, which raised RM3 million by April.
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SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS
These actions demonstrate the powerful role Malaysian civil society has played in helping the vulnerable during these trying times.
Yet sometimes it’s also small acts of kindness that can lift the human spirit. Recent stories in The Star in August of a couple living near Penang who decided to clear their streets of mask litter each week and the 34-year-old man who helped his elderly neighbour do her groceries show Malaysians have a big heart and want to do their part to help others.
Tales shared by netizens over social media via the trending hashtag #KitaJagaKita have been heart-warming.
The challenge is far from over, as the virus continues to strain every thread in the fabric of society and test how communities around the world will respond when confidence in longstanding practices and national institutions is shaken.
But Malaysians can take comfort in their collective response thus far to this existential threat.
Kevin Zhang is a Research Officer with the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.