Monday, February 22, 2021

Health or economy? Top-level meeting reveals anxiety on balancing act ahead of MCO end

Concerns are raised about a lack of clear narrative on the way forward in fighting the pandemic.

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A recent meeting of ministers, senior health officials and state government leaders from both sides of the political divide saw a tense discussion on the need to balance between the economy and public health, ahead of the Feb 4 expiry of the movement control order (MCO) to arrest the four-figure surge in Covid-19 infections, MalaysiaNow has learnt.

Questions were also thrown at health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who sought an explanation for speculation that the government would end the MCO next week.

Chow also grilled health ministry officials on the long-term plan to contain the pandemic, with total infections since the virus first hit a year ago fast approaching the 200,000 mark.

“Like governments around the world, Putrajaya is in a dilemma as it steps up its war against the pandemic.

“Which comes first: the effort to protect public health or the effort to ensure that the economy is not paralysed and affecting people in ways that are more serious than Covid-19 would?” a source who is privy to strategies on fighting the deadly virus told MalaysiaNow.

Despite a series of discussions, both ruling and opposition politicians at the meeting felt there was a lack of clear narrative on the way forward in fighting the pandemic.

“Like governments around the world, Putrajaya is in a dilemma as it steps up its war against the pandemic.”

There was also concern that daily infections will remain high even three weeks into the MCO, which expires on Feb 4.

Yesterday, 10 more people succumbed to the virus, bringing the death toll to 717, while another 4,094 people tested positive for the infection.

Hospitals nationwide dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients are already running at maximum capacity, prompting the government to turn to the private medical sector to allocate thousands of beds for new cases.

Another major concern is that lifting the MCO – under which tighter restrictions are placed on businesses as well as activities such as travelling, gathering and dining in at restaurants – would signal to the public that the authorities are losing the war and giving up.

“And there are concerns that accusations will be thrown, claiming the government is prioritising the economy over health,” the source told MalaysiaNow.

On Monday, Noor Hisham expressed optimism that the high number of daily infections could reduce to double digit figures by May, adding that authorities are not in favour of extending the MCO beyond the Feb 4 deadline.

He said the MCO could be replaced with conditional MCO for three months, where more businesses are allowed to operate and travel restrictions are relaxed.

“We do not want to extend the MCO because this will affect our economy. So, we must balance between our economy and health,” he told a press conference on Jan 25.

“There are concerns that accusations will be thrown, claiming the government is prioritising the economy over health.”

But despite Noor Hisham’s announcement, no decision has been made by the government on whether the MCO will be extended.

Meanwhile, MalaysiaNow has learnt that Noor Hisham will be laying out the health ministry’s long-term plan for battling the pandemic some time next week.

“That presentation will reveal data on the second phase of the MCO, which will show whether it has been successful or not,” the source said.

Criticism has been levelled at both Noor Hisham and the health ministry over the perceived failure of the MCO this time around. Questions have also been raised over the green light given to many businesses to continue operating throughout the period.

“The general view is that it is too early to measure the effectiveness of MCO 2.0,” the source told MalaysiaNow.

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