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Kudos to President Xi Jinping for acting decisively to counter the spread of the increasingly deadly coronavirus by suspending all tour groups and the sale of flight and hotel packages for its citizens headed overseas. It is among the drastic measures – including the quarantine of entire cities – China has put in place to help contain what could potentially be a major global pandemic.

After a slow start in managing the health crisis which began in the city of Wuhan, China is now marshalling the full weight of its government to deal with what President Xi is calling “a grave situation.”  More than 2,000 people have now been infected; 56 have died. And the numbers are climbing. Indeed, scientists estimate that given the current rate of infection, the number of people infected could grow exponentially.

Within the span of a few weeks, the virus has spread to several countries including Australia, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, the United States and Canada.

President Xi’s decision to suspend outgoing tour groups will now provide the world with a respite and allow individual countries time to put in place measures to stop its spread and deal with the epidemic. He should be applauded for making the tough calls needed to deal with the situation.

What Malaysians will now want to know is how their own government intends to deal with this new health threat (now that four cases have been confirmed)  after failing to adequately respond to the ongoing influenza epidemic.

Going by his comments to the media, Health Minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad seems to favour an immediate restriction on tourists from China. It certainly makes a lot of sense, especially given the fact that the virus is spreading so rapidly. Prevention is, after all, better than cure.

Of course, it will mean huge losses to our tourism industry, a major reason why Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad quickly ruled it out opining that the epidemic has “not reached the point where we will need to stop tourism.” He assured Malaysians that stringent checks on tourists entering the country are already in place and that those steps were sufficient for the moment.

He also hinted that any move to restrict tourists from the PRC might adversely affect the special visa arrangement we have with China and negatively impact the recently launched  Visit Malaysia 2020 programme.

In the meantime, he called on Malaysians to be more vigilant and to take all necessary measures to avoid infection, including using face masks.

Given the fact that a new vaccine has yet to be developed and that the government is “not very sure about the treatment,” (as Dr Mahathir himself noted), the measures being implemented by the government might not be enough to protect Malaysians.

And, if the way the government responded to the influenza epidemic is any measure of our ability to handle serious contagion, there is little reason to feel assured. Reports that health authorities in Johor had difficulty placing an infected PRC national in immediate quarantine also raises concerns about how the health authorities will cope with a wider contagion.

Now that President Xi is taking extreme measures – unpopular and costly no doubt – by suspending outbound tour groups and imposing restrictions on the movement of millions of people, there is little reason for Malaysia not to suspend, at least till the situation becomes clearer, PRC tour groups.

President Xi clearly recognizes the dangers that the coronavirus poses to his nation and to the world, and is not taking any chances. He certainly appears to be preparing for the worst with the government now embarked on a programme to rapidly construct two new hospitals in Wuhan to cope with the crisis.

Under the circumstances, he will very likely be sympathetic to whatever measures Malaysia might take to limit the spread of the virus as well. Worries about how China would react to a temporary suspension of PRC tour groups are, therefore, misplaced. As for the Visit Malaysia Year programme, it is still early days; the sooner we deal with this epidemic, the sooner we can expect our tourism industry to boom again.

In any case, the government has a responsibility to prioritize the health and well-being of Malaysians ahead of economic and bilateral considerations.  It should not wait until the situation reaches a critical stage before acting. Decisive steps taken early might well limit the dangers this new contagion poses both to the health of Malaysians and the economy.

[Dennis Ignatius |Free Malaysia Today | Kuala Lumpur |27th January 2020]