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Given the backdoor way they came to power, it is not surprising that many question the moral legitimacy of the Perikatan Nasional government. Their dismal management of the coronavirus pandemic to date might now lead many to wonder about their competency as well.

First, Putrajaya summoned all chief ministers and menteris besar to discuss the pandemic but excluded those from opposition-run states. The chief secretary has now bravely taken the blame but few doubt that it was purely an administrative oversight. This sort of behaviour was quite typical of UMNO when it ruled the country. Whatever it is, this is no time to play politics.

Instead of just making the announcement when it was ready, the government informed the public that a major announcement was immininet. Perhaps the prime minister was waiting for prime-time coverage.

News of an imminent announcement by the prime minister sparked panic buying across the country. The rush to stock up brought yet more Malaysians into close and potentially dangerous contact within the overcrowded confines of supermarkets.

When it was finally announced, the government’s strategy to contain the pandemic immediately proved to be ill-conceived and poorly thought through. They couldn’t seem to decide whether to lock down the country (as other governments had done) or control the movement of people. The result was an ambiguous neither-here-nor-there approach that is unlikely to be as effective as it could have been.

An order to ban interstate travel was given and then withdrawn when thousands thronged police stations seeking permission to return home. Clearly, no preparations had been made to cope with the travel ban if that was what was intended.

Without clear guidance, and with government officers and businesses on a two-week

shutdown, many saw it as a perfect opportunity to return to their hometowns and families. A mass exodus – something we usually see at Hari Raya and Chinese New Year – was the predictable result.

Instead of containing the virus and limiting social contact, which the movement control order was designed to accomplish, it had the opposite effect. With thousands of people returning to their hometowns and sitting for long hours in overcrowded cars, buses and trains, even more people likely ended up being exposed to the virus.

Compare this to France, for example, where a strict lockdown requiring most people in the country to remain at home was implemented, prohibiting all but essential outings in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. They shut down all transport and even put police on the streets to ensure compliance.

If a lockdown is to achieve the desired results, it must effectively stop the movement and mingling of people. It is hugely inconvenient and terribly damaging to the economy, of course, but it hopefully prevents a potentially greater catastrophe. It needs strong political will, something we are yet to see here.

Malaysians can now only hope and pray that the poor and indecisive leadership of the PN government will not make our situation even worse than before. The country is being called upon to make enormous sacrifices; is it too much to ask that the government ensure that the sacrifices are not in vain, that something beneficial will come out of the lockdown or controlled movement order or whatever the government wants to call it?

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |18th March 2020]