The main objective of the state of emergency that was declared on Jan 12 this year was for the government to take extraordinary measures to ensure that the real economy was not stifled and that public health services were not incapacitated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government has struggled on both scores to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods, as have other countries. This is because the virus has mutated and spread deep into the community, while vaccines have not been easy to obtain.
Economic activities have come to a standstill since June 1 and this is likely to continue for another month or more. This is not what businesses had expected.
Many businesses accepted the fact that an emergency and a political cooling off were needed to stabilise the country’s political situation and to keep the economy running.
The strict lockdown from June 1 has aggravated the level of unemployment and hardship faced by the bottom 40% (B40) of the population. The official unemployment rate of 4.6% as at April this year does not reflect the reality on the ground.
The cool response Finance Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Zafrul Aziz received from social media users when he touched on the declining unemployment rate is an indication of the reality.
Many, especially the younger folks, have fallen through the cracks in the unemployment survey. The services sector, which has been operating at half capacity since March last year, is crippled, exacerbating the situation.
As for the public health system, Health director general Tan Sri Noor Hisham Abdullah declared last month that it was at breaking point with inadequate beds in intensive care units (ICU) to treat Covid 19-patients. He said the situation has forced doctors to prioritise patients with higher chances of survival. Fearing a breakdown, the government reimposed strict lockdown measures on June 1.
Under the four-phase recovery plan that Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin unveiled last week, full economic recovery is likely only in November or December. This is when 60% of the population would have received two doses of the vaccine, daily cases are expected to drop to less than 500, and the public health system is operating at comfortable levels. That is the roadmap.
But if the economy only fully reopens towards year-end, can the country achieve economic growth of 6% to 7.5% for 2021?
Economists are already predicting a lower growth rate of about 5%, on the back of a lower base,owing to the recession last year when the economy contracted by 5.8%.
Politicians are calling for parliament to reconvene as soon as possible. In response, Muhyiddin has alluded to a parliament sitting sometime in September or October.
By then, he expects the number of cases to drop to below 2,000 per day and about 40% of the population to have been fully vaccinated. The stress on the public health system is also expected to be reduced to moderate levels.
But to those in the business community — who are more rational than politicians when it comes to assessing the health of the country — an aggressive schedule to open up the economy is needed.
Towards this end, they have called on the government to open up more economic sectors by the end of June instead of dragging it till August.
The EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce feels that a thorough review of the economy should be done by the end of June to assess the situation. Its chairman Oliver Roche described the national Covid-19 strategy as offering more certainty for investors and businesses.
However, he says it falls short as the timeline and milestones given are too stringent. He adds that a single dose of vaccination rather than two doses is adequate to determine the easing of restrictions.
Similar sentiments are echoed by the small businesses. A businessman who runs a foundry with fewer than 50 workers says he cannot afford to stop operations for another six weeks. From recycling centres to barbers and tailors, they all need to reopen for business soon.
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A strict lockdown amid a prolonged weak economic environment would cause serious consequences for many.
There have been no major outbreaks of Covid-19 infections among the smaller businesses. Statistics show that the major outbreaks have occurred in large-scale manufacturing operations.
Between January last year and the end of May this year, some 1,085 workplace clusters have been reported, involving 129,323 cases. Those are only the numbers that have been reported publicly. There are many cases in workplaces that go undetected.
A programme to vaccinate workers at factories has kicked off in Selangor and Penang. The list of firms participating in the programme is long but the supply of vaccines is limited for now.
Until the supply situation improves, the government should make it mandatory for factories that have not vaccinated their workers to conduct regular testing and for employers to pay for the cost of testing. If there is a slip-up, the factory should be penalised.
There is no room for mistakes as the government navigates us out of the pandemic.
The emergency was to have been used to enforce strict measures to control the number of infections and expedite the vaccination process.
In the early months, controls were lax. A Movement Control Order was only imposed in states with a high number of cases. Also, there were delays in the approval process for the vaccines, affecting the supply.
The pace of vaccination only started to pick up in mid-May, a good four months after the emergency laws came into effect.
Until recently, enforcement in workplaces that failed to strictly comply with standard operating procedures (SOP) to curb the pandemic was relatively lenient. It is only now that factories are being fined for not adhering to these rules.
Also, the cost of testing is relatively high, hindering more widespread tests. The government must force the laboratories to bring down the cost of testing .
We have now secured enough supply of vaccines to cover almost 90% of the population. Vaccination needs to be expedited as it is the most effective exit route out of the pandemic. It is an area that needs the full attention of the government — make no mistake about that.
Any more time needed beyond the timeline set out in the roadmap for the full opening up of the economy is not acceptable, especially to the unemployed and business owners, not to mention our mental health.
M Shanmugam is contributing editor of The Edge