THE current pandemic is not the first. Neither will it be the last. Despite its ill-effects, the scourge offers us, and the rest of humanity, three valuable lessons.
First, it shows that an immediate lockdown of centres, if not the whole country, is absolutely necessary to contain the contagion. At the outset, China banned movement in Wuhan — the epicentre — for two months.
Later, the whole province of Hubei with 60 million people came under lockdown as well. Today, China has conquered the disease. Successful city lockdowns in the US during the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, too, lend credence to such a draconian measure. Something has got to give. Such a lockdown will result in reduced economic growth. Health or wealth is the choice for the government and the public to make.
To help enforce the lockdown, countries have enlisted the army. Seeing soldiers patrolling the streets might be squeamish for some. However, it is necessary to project the seriousness of social distancing. It will also allow governments to utilise military assets — military doctors, medical equipment and logistical capabilities — to ease the workload of civilian personnel.
Military deployment, however, should not compromise its combat readiness. It might if military personnel get infected and require enforced quarantine; or social distancing, and an extended tour of duty take them away from training. Again, where the balance lies is a matter of political choice.
Second, the pandemic has brought out the best in nations and people. Despite geopolitical tensions (Iran rebuffed American aid) China has sent medical supplies, expertise and personnel to many countries. Its supplies to Malaysia came with a heart-warming Malay idiom, “Berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing”. The expression beautifully articulates that we are together in both troubled and good times.
Russia sent its supplies to Italy with a touching message: From Russia with love. Once Chinese scientists mapped the genome of the virus and shared it with the world in January, the race started for a vaccine. Some should be ready for clinical trial by mid-year. If effective, we should see a vaccine commercially available by year end.
International agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Health Organisation have lessened the burden of managing the crisis by countries which can ill-afford the large expenditures required to stabilise their economy and counter the outbreak.
Such international collaboration demonstrates that no one country by itself can battle a pandemic that respects no national boundary. The pandemic has also shown the vital need for solidarity between the medical profession and the public. The poignant message held up in placards by health teams, “I came to work for you. You stay at home for me” says it all.
Third, the contagion has exposed the glaring need to better fund the health sector. Nations have gone on an arms race, even a nuclear one. There is even a scramble to the moon again. Yet, in these countries public health is fragile given years of under-investment. Washing hands for 20 seconds is a proven method to stop the spread. But one in three in the world has no access to clean water!
Inadequate testing facilities limit the efficacy of containment. In Lombardy, Italy, health staff play god as to which patient gets a ventilator. Malaysia has about 50 ventilators per million people. As such, Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of Health, recently warned that playing god may also become a reality in health services if Malaysia fails to stem the infection spike. There is an opportunity cost for military expenditures. It is the case of ‘either guns or butter’. Some of the ‘guns’ could therefore be traded for better health and education so as to be ready for the next epidemic. More so, as society ages and becomes increasingly vulnerable, and as the nation urbanises and people live in close quarters.
We could buy about half a million ventilators, costing US$25,000 each, should we be able to sacrifice one MIG-29 fighter jet, or some other equivalent expenditure. This is not an advocacy to cut the defence budget, which has grown slower than in the past. Rather, it is to highlight the difficult choices that the government has to make in confronting another virulent crisis in the future.
The writer is a professor at the Putra Business School