New ‘normal’, how would it be like?

By Aznan Mat Piah

We are already more than a month under a lockdown since the movement control order (MCO) was imposed on 18 March. In the last few days we have seen that new cases of COVID-19 have somewhat gone down to two digits, for example today the Ministry of Health (MOH) announced that it recorded 36 new cases, 98 patients being discharged bringing the total number of those recovered to 3,295, and accumulated infected cases totalled 5,425.

That seems good news for everybody, which shows that the “stay at home” and social distancing strategy has actually showed some success in containing the spread of the virus. Despite the decrease in the new cases, the government will continue its effort to isolate and treat infected cases in the red zone through targeted approach using enhanced MCO.  There are still a number of Malaysians who have just returned home from overseas who need to be screened and isolated, and the results are yet to be shown, according to MOH.

Will there be a lifting of the MCO in the near future should authorities succeed in bringing down the infected cases further? How soon will it be? Can we go back to our life style that we have missed doing it during the lockdown? These are probably the questions that a layman like us would be eager to ask and to know the outcome. The answer would lie in how the data and facts concerning the reality and severity of the situation affecting us all will be studied.  The exit strategy would consider the success of containing and mitigating effects at global and regional levels.

The Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently warned that lifting restrictions “too quickly” could lead to a deadly resurgence of COVID-19. He said this as “some countries are already planning the transition out of stay-at-home restrictions.”

“The way down can be as dangerous as the way up if not managed properly,” he said, underlining that WHO is working with affected countries on strategies for gradually and safely easing restrictions.

The message was actually directed at some European countries already considering relaxing these restriction measures as they see a slowing trend in the number of COVID-19 infections. Austria, for instance, aims to gradually ease the exit restrictions and reopen shops and business from mid-April. Switzerland also suggested “the first relaxations” by end of April.

The WHO chief said that decision of lifting restrictions should be made on conditions that transmission is controlled; that sufficient public health and medical services are available; that outbreak risks in special settings like long term care facilities are minimised; that preventive measures are in place in work places, schools and other places where it’s essential for people to go; that importation risks can be managed; and that communities are fully aware and engaged in the transition.

Globally, as of today, around 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported with more than 166,000 deaths.

The statement by WHO Director General would be a good indication as to how Malaysia would react to the circumstances that need to be taken into account should the decision on lifting of the MCO were to be taken.

Malaysia’s Director General of Health, Datuk Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah told the press conference today that it is important for Malaysia to learn a lesson from our neighbour which had recorded a reduction of new COVID-19 cases to two digits in the last three weeks but suddenly see a drastic increase in new cases.

Singapore today reported a record daily jump of more than 1,426 cases, taking its total to 8,014 including 11 deaths, with almost all new infections linked to dormitories housing foreign labourers. The city-state was initially successful in keeping its outbreak in check with strict regime of testing and contact tracing but is facing a fast-moving second wave. It now has the highest number of infections in South East Asia, according to media reports.

Responding to a question at a press conference, Datuk Dr. Noor Hisham said that “we still have not won the war neither do we lose the battle, but “we will continue to fight to break the chains of transmission of the virus.” He further said he would like to see in the next two weeks the new cases be further reduced to single digit.

His words sent a clear message that we should not be too complacent in our effort to contain the spread of the virus. At least in the next few months, if the lockdown is to be lifted, we should prepare our mind as to how we should lead our life according to the new norm, a life style that requires us to continue with social distancing, and staying at home like we have been observing during the MCO.

Admittedly, it is going to be a new normal moving away from the practices that we were used to before the MCO came into enforcement. It means that we should refrain from any forms of social, cultural, business and religious gatherings or face-to-face contacts that would likely to spread the infections or cause a recurrence of cases.

Later in the week, Muslims will welcome Ramadan. For the first time in our life, we are going through a fasting month in a way that is going be very different from our past practices that we were used to. This is the first time also we would not be able to perform the terawih and attend prayers in mosques, in accordance with the practice of social distancing. We are also going to miss the physical Ramadan bazaar that most of us depend for foodstuff and a variety of kueh mueh for breaking of fast. Though we can still have the food delivered to us through a business conducted online, the feeling of going to the bazar to make the choice of foodstuff won’t be the same again.

Imagine after the one-month fasting during Ramadan we are going to celebrate the Aidil Fitri. Again the festive mood of the Aidil Fitri would not be the same because the social distancing would restrict our movement. We will not be going for the Aidil Fitri prayers as usual in the mosque. And of course, no balik kampung for us too which has become the practice before. It means we will have to spend our Raya celebration within the confine of our house or apartment. Going back to kampung would undo what we have achieved in terms of containing the virus because it would be very difficult to avoid us having close contact and doing the salam that we used to do during this festive time.

Looking at the global reality, COVID-19 is here to stay even though we might be able to flatten the curve and bring down the infected cases. Not until the vaccination has been found, developed and tested, which would take at least another one and the half years, we are obviously going to go through a new normal.

The fact is that no government would be able to eradicate the disease totally until a cure is found. There is no going back to normal. Economies globally are expected to keep bleeding. Even if the ban on lockdown is lifted, tourism and hospitality industry will continue to be affected because travelling will be restricted and people will continue to isolate themselves.

Universities and colleges will have to adjust to the alternative methods and find new ways of teaching to avoid human contact. And business corporations will need to put into the new norm of operating and dealing with customers without compromising the physical or social distancing.

We have not much of a choice but to contend with the new normal and find positivity in living with it, at least until a cure is found. ***

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