By Wong Chen
Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room; the role of politicians in Sabah and the current surge of Covid-19 cases in West Malaysia.
On 1st October 2020, Malaysia recorded its second highest number of 260 new covid-19 cases in a day. The highest recorded number of new cases was 277, on June 4th 2020. However, the 277 new cases then were primarily from a contained area, the immigration detention centre in Bukit Jalil. In that context, the current 1st October numbers are in fact, more worrying. Further, it has been reported that 31 of 260 cases involved people who had recently returned from Sabah. We have also had reports of two politicians and several officers of politicians, testing positive.
Like most, if not all politicians, I was directed by my party to assist in the Sabah state elections. I went to Sabah on the 12th of September and came back to Kuala Lumpur on the 14th September, spending about 2 ½ days in Sabah. I was assigned to help win the Inanam seat for PKR (yes, we won) and my movements were confined to just Inanam and Kota Kinabalu. I was never in the South East coast of Lahad Datu and Tawau where Covid-19 clusters were starting to form. At the material time, there were also no Ministry of Health rules, restrictions or regulations applicable for travellers to and from Sabah. Nevertheless, I made the decision to take extra precautionary steps of getting tested.
Upon landing in KLIA on the evening of the 14th of September, I went straight to Sunway Medical Centre to do a RT-PCR nasal and throat swab test. I got my results in the afternoon of the 15th of September. No Covid-19 detected. Nevertheless, I was advised to minimise meetings and monitor myself for symptoms. Then on the 28th of September, exactly 14 days after the first test, I went back to Sunway Medical Centre to do a follow up RT-PCR nasal and throat swab test. The test also came back negative, no Covid-19 detected.
It is no secret that politicians are potential high risk spreaders. Due to the nature of the work, politicians are constantly meeting people, officiating and attending public functions are also common. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I was attending 4 to 10 community events every weekend. From these events, I would be in physical contact with hundreds of my constituents every weekend. This exposure becomes exponentially higher during election time, when candidates need to reach out to as many voters as they can. This was the situation in the recent Sabah state elections. A very good case in point is President Donald Trump, who is currently engaged in an election campaign. As I write this article, news of Trump having tested positive to Covid-19 are coming in.
Politicians do need to take extra precautions, much more than others. When the Covid-19 pandemic started, my office made the decision to close office and avoid engaging the public. We wanted to help, but all our community funds were frozen (and continues to be frozen) by the new government. Luckily, we were contacted by a Buddhist organisation that asked us to help distribute RM80,000 to poor families in Subang. Even then we decided not to do direct public welfare engagements; instead we thought through the process and pioneered a contactless welfare program of mailing 99 Speedmart vouchers to poor families via registered mail. The system proved effective and the registered mail enabled verification of receipt of the vouchers by the recipients.
After the MCO was relaxed, I decided to limit the hours and days of the office. Our officers and interns worked from home on alternate days. I also declined many invitations to community events, preferring to socially distance and choosing very few events only. I hope the organisers can understand why this has to be the way. During Covid-19, it will be better for politicians to embrace the concept of “less is more” when it comes to community events.
Lastly, in view of the very recent surge of cases, it is imperative that the Ministry of Health leads decisively on this matter. I personally don’t want to see a return of the MCO; it will be too high a price to pay for the people and the economy. Yet, I am fully aware that if we don’t take some tougher measures now, say for a period of 2 to 3 weeks, we may lose the advantage in containing this new wave quickly.
Winter is coming. This is a motto familiar with GoT fans; a reminder to all to be constantly vigilant. On that front, my office has decided to re-implement alternate office days for 2 weeks from Monday 5th of October to Friday 16th October. During this period, we will be open to the public only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I will also not be attending any community events during the same period. We will then wait for MoH data and advisory on next steps after the 16th of October. Please stay safe, sanitise, social distance and wear your masks. We can overcome this new Covid-19 wave together.