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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Time to re-open the economy

IT’S A good start to the reopening of Malaysia, although those of us living in Klang Valley, despite being fully vaccinated, have found out that we have been left out of the exercise.

The government’s decision to relax some Covid-19 restrictions for those fully vaccinated in eight states is indeed the way forward.

It does not make sense to impose a blanket rule on these eight states, such as Perlis, and Federal Territories like Labuan, which have seen reduced numbers and higher vaccination rates.

These states and Federal Territory deserve to have a breather, which will take effect on Tuesday (Aug 10) because they have worked hard to be in Phase Two and Three.

Malaysia has been under lockdown since June 1, and while daily infections continue to hit record highs, most of these cases are confined to Klang Valley.

There have been loud calls for the Health Ministry to review their approaches as while the numbers are hovering around 20,000 new infection cases, the fact is that at least 80 and 90% are from Category One and Two.

When ordinary Malaysians talk about the daily numbers, most of us do not look at the breakdown, only the cumulative figures giving rise to fear and even panic.

Of course, we must not dismiss these high figures as while they can be mild and asymptomatic; they could also migrate to more serious levels. Yes, our hospitals are full and dead bodies are still filling the morgues.

But our vaccination exercise is moving very fast. Let’s put aside that we procured the vaccine late, but we have caught up. Our vaccination rate is among the highest in the world.

Malaysia has administered at least 23,608,290 doses of Covid-19 vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs two doses, that’s enough to have vaccinated about 36.9% of the country’s population.

As of Aug 7, a total of 2.94 million people or 47.7% of the adult population in the Klang Valley had received their two-dose vaccination.

On Monday, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba announced that half of the adults living in the Klang Valley had been fully vaccinated, adding that 51.5% of the adult population in the Klang Valley had completed their Covid-19 vaccination as of Aug 8.

About 101.1%, he said, of the Klang Valley adult population have received at least one dose. The double vaccination should be completed by next month, and let’s hope it will be the Klang Valley next in rebooting the economy.

It is essential that Klang Valley be involved, at some point or another, as it is the economic heart of Malaysia. This is the most industrialised region of the nation.

There is much anticipation over whether there will be more good news from the Prime Minister on allowing certain sectors to open up.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has rightly said that these steps would be taken based on the advice of health experts and that the standard operating procedures (SOP) would have to be placed.

Let’s be realistic here. By now, we know the vaccine is not a silver bullet, even if you have been fully vaccinated, but at least your antibodies will help you fight the virus.

While the United Kingdom has talked about their declining infections since it opened up, the fact is that the daily infection rate is on average about 30,000 a day. It has about 100 deaths for a country that is almost fully vaccinated.

Last Saturday, the official Covid websites showed Britain recorded 28,612 new cases, down from 31,808 a day earlier and 103 deaths, higher than the 92 reported on Friday, official data showed.

The data also showed that 46,997,495 people have had the first dose of vaccine and 39,210,356 have had two doses.

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the country’s Covid-19 cases continued its downward trend by recording 17,236 new infections on Monday (Aug 9).

He tweeted that this brought the cumulative number of cases in the country to 1,279,776.

The Malaysian economy must start to open up in stages and with attached conditions. There are no other options.

Many sectors in retail are low hanging fruits. For example, outlets involved in stationery, mobile phones, clothes, sports goods, hair salons, barbershops, car wash, locksmiths and jewellery have no reason to remain shut.

No one is going to rush and form a long queue outside these shops when they are open.

If they are located in locations with low infection rates and their staff have been vaccinated, at least with a dose, there is no reason why they can’t open.

As of now, even gardeners, pool cleaners, landscaping contractors, plumbers and air condition repairmen are not even allowed to work.

It’s the same with malls. Let them open up but with enhanced SOP and strict control of numbers for a start.

Let the golf courses and badminton courts be opened as they are non-physical contact sports.

We can regard these as low hanging fruits as a start to see how further stages can be made.

While there may be reservations over dine-in, we can also start with one or two customers per table and that they must prove that they have received double-doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The government should allow more economic sectors to open up safely and responsibly. If business owners are forced to close until Covid-19 cases drop below 4,000, they may end up having to close for good instead.

As DAP MP Ong Kian Ming rightly said, “if not, many more businesses will collapse and die. Human misery and suffering will be increased significantly beyond what is already happening now.”

The Bangi MP also urged Muhyiddin to develop a plan for each ministry on how various economic sectors can open up safely, subject to strict SOPs, for those who have been vaccinated.

“At the same time, enhanced SOPs including strict testing procedures and protocols must be implemented at the factories and construction sites.”

Likewise, it’s time for the soft reopening of the tourism industry. Take Langkawi, if the target of vaccinating the residents there is met, it should be the first to open up as the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry has said the island is the pilot destination for the Covid-19 Free Destination Programme.

The proposal was agreed during the Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force (CITF) meeting, in line with the ministry’s three phases of the Tourism Recovery Plan.

Vaccination should be pumped up in selected islands such as Tioman, Redang, Perhentian and Pangkor to ensure the villagers and workers are fully vaccinated and all necessary precautions are taken.

The reality is that these businesses will not be able to just open up tomorrow even if the government allows these tourism sectors to start. The monsoon season is coming up.

All businesses, especially production plants, need time to restart and to recall their workers back. It will take up to two weeks before operations fully resume. Take, for example, breweries, despite having their staff 100% vaccinated, remain non-essential for purely political reasons, let’s admit it.

This is the right of non-Muslims, but because of politics, no one dares to tell off those who want to keep shutting down these breweries.

But beer factories cannot open overnight because brewing is a biochemical process involving live yeast cultures and natural raw ingredients. The prolonged suspension may require up to six months for permission to fully resume before reaching the previous production capacity.

What’s the loss for the government – a huge loss of tax revenue comprising excise duties and corporate taxes. The industry contributed over RM2.2bil in direct tax and indirect taxes in the 2020 financial year. So, we now see smuggled beers and liquor and fake ones. The winners are the criminals in the illicit trade.

The June unemployment rose 4.8% to 768,700 due to the Covid-19 curbs. Employed persons fell 0.5% to 15.3 million vs 15.37 million in May.

Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking Covid-19 will go away. It has become endemic.

We have to learn to live with it by now; most of us are no longer surprised that even if you have been double-dosed, you can still catch the virus except that you will remain safe.

We would have noticed that the BBC no longer reports daily Covid-19 infections.

Infection and death rates will continue, but our vaccination must continue even more vigorously. While we have hit good record rates, we need to do even better to reboot our economy.

Can we at least put aside politics and focus our attention on fighting the pandemic, reopening the economy and putting Malaysia on track again?

During wartime, we must stand together defending our nation and not shoot at each other. We are at war against the pandemic.

#Rakyat First, Politics Last #MenangBersama

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 35 years in various capacities and roles. He is now group editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer.

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