Govt Shouldn’t Politicize Health System Under Emergency, Malaysian Medical Groups Warn

Muzliza Mustafa, Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
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Govt Shouldn’t Politicize Health System Under Emergency, Malaysian Medical Groups Warn Frontline COVID-19 workers at Selayang Hospital in Malaysia pose for pictures during International Nurses Day, May 12, 2020.

Muhyiddin Yassin’s government shouldn’t politicize the country’s health system, medical groups said after Malaysia this week declared a national emergency, which much of the opposition criticized as a move to cling to power rather than contain a worsening coronavirus pandemic.

The government should use the sweeping powers granted it under the emergency responsibly and prepare a collaborative COVID-19 response focused on the people’s welfare, the Malaysian Health Coalition (MHC) and the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) said.

Meanwhile, some doctors and analysts interviewed by BenarNews said that an emergency declaration was needed for political stability during the pandemic, especially when Muhyiddin’s coalition had just lost the support of a parliamentary majority and may have faced imminent elections.

Under the emergency declared by the king on Tuesday through a constitutional provision and authorized through Aug. 1, parliament is suspended with the prospect of snap polls before the second quarter being snuffed out.

In its announcement, the palace said the king was of the view that an emergency declaration was needed because the pandemic was now “at a very critical level.”

But most of the political opposition said that Muhyiddin’s government was to blame for not controlling a surge in COVID-19 cases. Opposition politicians said an emergency wasn’t required for the coronavirus response, especially because the prime minister on Monday had imposed complete and partial lockdowns to contain the more than 2,000 daily new infections the country has been recording lately.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” the MHC said after the national emergency was declared. “The frontline health professionals who have tirelessly served the rakyat [people] throughout the pandemic must not be politicized.  … [We] do not accept any politicization of the health system,” said the health coalition, which is made up of 45 medical groups and 18 doctors.

The MMA initially issued a statement thanking the king for declaring a national emergency to bring the COVID-19 situation in the country under control. But the medical association soon changed its tune after learning about some of the more extraordinary powers the government had gained from the declaration.

“The EO [emergency ordinance] should be used responsibly and not to bully or arm twist the private health care sector in order to use its resources. For the record, the private health care sector has been consistently offering their services in the battle against COVID-19 from the very start of the pandemic,” MMA said in a statement on Friday.

The association was referring to statements made by Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob. A day earlier, he was reported as having said that under the emergency, the government could fine private hospitals RM 5 million (U.S. $1.2 million) and jail those who run the facilities if they refused to admit COVID-19 patients.

The MMA said it viewed the minister’s statement with “deep concern.”

“The government should stop playing Big Brother after not being able to contain the pandemic but should instead start listening to feedback from the ground and regard private health care as its key partner,” MMA said.

On Friday, Malaysia reported 3,337 new cases, recording a total of 147,855 cases. With 15 new deaths, the virus-related fatalities rose to 578.

System ‘being stretched’

Doctors and analysts interviewed by BenarNews described the country’s coronavirus pandemic as dire.

“The situation has certainly deteriorated especially in the last two months with cases surging dramatically. The immediate concern is the public healthcare system is being stretched especially with regards to ICU beds,” Dr. Christopher Lee, a former deputy director-general of health, told BenarNews.

On Monday, Muhyiddin had said that ICU bed use had reached 80-100 percent capacity at many hospitals. In addition, more than 1,450 medical personnel in hospitals nationwide were unable to work because they had been infected or were under quarantine orders.

The burden on the healthcare system is why an emergency declaration was required, according to Dr. Fazrul Mokhtar, an emergency-ward physician.

“Looking at the current situation, a state of emergency declaration is reasonable. We need the situation in the country to be stabilized. Our concern is the well-being of all Malaysians,” he told BenarNews.

Holding a general election at this time is a bad idea, said another doctor who works with coronavirus patients in a government hospital but asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.

“Whatever helps combat the pandemic is welcome … But as far as elections go, as a Malaysian citizen, I don’t think we should do it, seeing as the high numbers we have now are still very much linked to the Sabah election last year,” the doctor said.

State legislative elections last September in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, led to a huge spike in coronavirus cases after the country had reduced new infections.

Just a few days before the Sept. 26 election, the country reported a little more than 10,000 coronavirus cases. Now, Malaysia close to 150,000 total cases.

PM’s earlier request

Still, in October, the king rejected a first request by Muhyiddin to declare a national emergency soon after the Sabah-related coronavirus surge became apparent. The government “has managed to tackle the pandemic well and effectively,” the king had said on Oct. 25.

The king’s rejection of the prime minister’s initial request came when Muhyiddin’s government was clinging to a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, ahead of critical deliberations on the passage of his government’s proposed budget, which was passed last month.

When he rejected Muhyiddin’s first request, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah also called on politicians “to immediately stop all politicking that could disrupt the stability of the country’s government.”

What changed?

“Two things,” said political analyst and retired university academic Azmi Hassan.

“The [daily new] positive cases at that time had still not reached a four-figure value and our hospital delivery system was still efficient. The second reason is the political situation, that is, the threat of [snap] elections was still at a premature stage,” Hassan told BenarNews.

He was referring to disaffection in Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition, with its largest party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), threatening to pull support from the government.

‘Coronavirus response needs to change’

According to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin misled the king and used the worsening pandemic as a pretext to cling to power.

“We think the prime minister and the government have been excessive and misguided in conveying advice to the king because [the emergency] is not really related to COVID-19,” Anwar, who leads the opposition in parliament, said in a letter to MPs urging them to appeal to the king to withdraw the state of emergency.

“The Prime Minister is more focused on efforts to remain in power,” Anwar, who leads the Pakatan Harapan coalition said.

Besides, not everyone in the opposition had called for snap polls, he said. Pakatan had said a general election should only be held in 2023, Anwar said.

He also said an emergency was not needed to rope in private hospitals to help fight the coronavirus because these hospitals were already “really willing to help government.”

Lim Guan Eng, leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, wondered why an emergency declaration was needed alongside coronavirus restrictions, called the Movement Control Order, which Muhyiddin had announced a day before the emergency declaration.

The Muhyiddin government’s coronavirus response needed to change, Lim said in a statement on Tuesday, because its “policy flip-flops, double-standards and sheer incompetence” so far had “caused Malaysians to lose both our lives and livelihood in the battle against COVID-19.”


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