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This handout photo taken and released by Malaysia’s Ministry of Health shows health officials in protective suits at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, waiting for arrivals that were evacuated from China’s Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Muzzafar Kasim/Malaysia’s Ministry of Health via AP)

The tough new measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic that were announced a few days ago have certainly brought home to us the seriousness of the challenges we now face as a nation. Suddenly, we are all vulnerable to an invisible killer that could strike anyone anywhere.

While the immediate challenge is containing the spread of the virus and treating those who are infected, managing the longer-term economic and social consequences of the pandemic might prove to be an even greater challenge.

The global economy was already headed for a recession as a consequence of the US-China trade war; the pandemic will amplify the downturn yet further. An export-dependent nation like Malaysia will surely feel the full blast of economic uncertainty.

Economists are predicting a sharp fall in GDP growth. Companies could fail. Thousands could lose their jobs and perhaps even their homes. Life is going to get harder for many, especially for the B40 group, refugees and migrant workers.

More fortunate Malaysians can quite easily stock up on essentials; the less fortunate might have trouble putting food on the table. For many, the movement control order will be just a huge inconvenience – no eating out or socialising; for others, it could be an unmitigated disaster. They are going to need all our support in the days ahead.

The government is, of course, trying to manage the situation as best it can. We shall have to see if it is up to the task. Whatever it is, we are all going to suffer the consequences of this pandemic one way or another.

Faced with the prospect of an imminent national disaster, all the voices that divide us have thankfully grown silent. Suddenly, all the things that we’ve argued about for decades – especially race and religion – pale in comparison to the challenges we now face. We are all in this together – bumiputera and non-bumiputera, Malay and non-Malay, Muslim and non-Muslim. All are equally vulnerable because this pandemic is no respecter of race or religion or status or background. It’s the only existential threat we are all concerned about right now.

To survive, we will all need to work together. Every person must act responsibly if we are to successfully weather the storm. We can all help by not passing on fake news that could cause panic and fear, by not hoarding essential items and by complying with the movement control order and staying at home. We owe it to our families, friends and neighbours to do our part to safeguard our nation. It is the new measure of our patriotism.

The pandemic is already causing many nations and individuals to reassess their priorities and rethink their direction. People are suddenly discovering the value of civic responsibility, of being good neighbours, of the importance of working together and helping each other. In the face of a common threat, people seem to be rediscovering their common humanity.

I hope something similar will occur here as well, that we too will rediscover our common citizenship of this unique and truly amazing land we call home. For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be divided by race, religion, culture and other such things. For too long, we have allowed bigotry and prejudice to diminish our shared citizenship and keep us from being the great nation we can be.

At the end of the day, whatever our differences, we are all Malaysians. We are inexorably linked to each other in a thousand different ways. Whatever befalls our nation befalls us all. Its success, its stability, its safety is ours too. When our nation is vulnerable, we all are too. We can learn to live together to keep our nation strong, free and safe, or we can continue with the kind of destructive divisions that have brought down countries with a far longer record of civilization and history than ours.

The sooner we realize that and reach out to each as brothers, friends, neighbours and citizens the sooner we be that great nation we know we can be.

Well before coronavirus became a household word, we were headed towards a critical juncture in the life of our nation; perhaps the pandemic will now give us reason to pause and ponder the future as we retreat to the safety of our homes to wait out the pandemic.

[Dennis Ignatius |Kuala Lumpur |20th March 2020]