Malaysian socialist: COVID-19 means we cannot go back to business as normal

Malaysia's 'Stay at home' campaign during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, also known as the “Red Doctor”, is a doctor and chairperson of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

He served in the Parliament of Malaysia as Member of Parliament for the Sungai Siput constituency in Perak for two terms from 2008 to 2018.

Well-known to authorities, Jeyakumar and other PSM members were arrested in June 2011 for allegedly trying to wage war against the king and revive communism. A month later he was arrested again and spent 28 days in detention.

Jeyakumar participated in an international online roundtable co-hosted by Green Left on April 11, which focused on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the Global South. The following is a transcript of his presentation. You can listen to the speeches by  Jeyakumar and Reihana Mohideen (Philippines) below.

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I was asked to comment on the situation in Malaysia. Malaysia has 4300 cases of COVID-19 and total deaths of 73 [as at April 11]. We seem to be doing alright compared to other countries, especially in Europe, where you find the number of cases per capita of population is much higher than ours.

The case fatality ratio, in for example the UK, is 12.3% of all cases, whereas our rate is 1.6%, which is not too high. So if you look at these figures, Malaysia seems to be containing the epidemic to a reasonable extent. Other countries such as the Philippines and India seem to have low rates of infection, but it is doubtful whether all the cases are being diagnosed.

The reason why Malaysia is doing relatively better is because we don’t believe our authorities’ figures. They give the impression that if you just allow the epidemic to develop and infect people and if we can keep it below a certain amount, which is the capacity of your health care system, it will be enough. If you have only 1% deaths, you will get through and will have herd immunity. This is what [Prime Minister] Boris Johnson in Britain tried to kick off before.

The problem is that this line has been drawn too high. If the actual capacity of the health care system is below the curve, then you have to have a much lower number of cases and at that rate it would take 50 or 60 years for the epidemic to go through the whole population.

We might as well suppress and wait for the vaccine, [which] is what Malaysia and a lot of other countries in East Asia are doing, in Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.

This reasoning is flawed as shown by many countries in Europe, which have horrendous mortality rates of over 10%. We were lucky our government did not believe in this. They took the line of China and Korea and said we have to suppress and use mitigation.

We have been in lockdown since March 18 and are now in the fourth week of the lockdown. Figures of new cases per day for the last 10 days have been released: on April 2 we had 207 cases but yesterday it has come down to about 118. There seems to be a downward trend, but the government is extending the lockdown for another 2 weeks until the end of April.

A survey done yesterday [April 10] showed that most people support what the government is doing. They appreciate that we do need some kind of a lockdown to prevent the spread of the disease as it can be spread by people who are asymptomatic — people who don’t have a fever or a cough and feel they are well and don’t know they have the virus but could be transmitting it. The only way to bring it down to manageable levels is to have this lockdown and get the rate of new cases in Malaysia down below 15 per day for the whole country before we can ease up on the lockdown.

On March 13 the PSM called for a roundtable discussion with some of our partners in the Peoples’ Health Forum — a loose coalition of civil society groups and NGOs, including the PSM. We discussed what the government should do to manage the COVID epidemic. From that discussion we came up with a memorandum with a number of ideas that should be followed by the government.

One of the things we talked about was income support for people who are under quarantine for two weeks and can’t go to work, and help for small businesses. Interestingly, the government has actually implemented most of them. There is a policy now that 4 million of the poorest families in Malaysia will be given MYR1600. To put this into perspective, the minimum wage in Malaysia is MYR1200 and median factory wage is about MYR1700, so MYR1600 per family is a fair amount and will help in getting them food for the next 6 weeks.

We also asked for a moratorium on all loans, as many Malaysians had bought houses and other things on hire purchase or had loans and they would face problems in repaying these loans. The government has come through in its policy and has said that there will be a moratorium on all loans, mortgages and personal loans, until the end of the year. Interest will be accrued and added to the loan amount, but payments are not required now and banks and other institutions are barred from taking legal action on these loans.

We also asked in our memorandum, which was endorsed by 42 NGOs, that small and medium enterprises, which form the backbone of the country, be given assistance. More than 70% of them have less than 50 employees, yet they provide about two-thirds of the employment in the country. They would have problems meeting the wage bill, so we asked the government to give them easy credit. We were pleased to see that the government has come up with a number of programs for them. One is a cash credit of MYR3000 for about 800,000 small enterprises with easy credit terms, plus assistance in paying MYR1200 towards paying the wages of the workers of these small enterprises.

So the government did a number of things. But there was one thing that we brought up in our memorandum that they haven’t acted upon. That was pertaining to migrant workers. In Malaysia we have about 6 million migrant workers, of which about two-thirds are undocumented — they don’t have proper passports and visas. These 6 million workers complement the 15 million Malaysians in the job market.

Right now migrant workers live in fear of the government. They are afraid to come forward because they are afraid they would be arrested, detained and deported. So we asked the government to hold a moratorium on all immigration offences and open the doors of our hospitals so they can get free treatment, because if the virus spreads to them and they cannot get treatment it will spread across the whole country.

So now we in the PSM find ourselves in a strange situation, where we have come out a few times in the past month in support of some of the policies the government has announced, because we think they are good policies. They are providing support for poorer people and providing testing for the virus. The government seems to be quite sober. It is listening to medical professionals and when they have made missteps they have corrected themselves.

For example, in the early days of the lockdown they wanted to arrest people who were breaking the lockdown rules and put them in remand, but when people spoke up and said it would not help they withdrew that idea. They said NGOs could not go and deliver food to poor communities, but when the NGOs spoke up against that they revised that. So they seem to be fairly responsive.

We have a daily update by the Director-General of Health which is quite reassuring about the number of new cases and deaths. The Prime Minister has come out with statements about three or four times in the last few weeks, which is quite reassuring for the people.

We on the left have to see that this COVID-19 pandemic is going to be a game changer. It has actually upended the entire capitalist system and this disruption is going to continue.

Even if in Malaysia in the next few weeks we can bring the levels down to where we can relax the movement control order, we still have to be careful because we don’t have herd immunity and we can import cases. We have a long porous border with Indonesia and a lot of Indonesian workers come in across the border, or it can come in with international travellers.

So we cannot go back to business as normal. Obviously international travel and airlines will be affected. The tourism sector will be badly hit. Higher education, where we have a lot of students coming from overseas, will also be hit as will mass functions, such as social functions like weddings and religious events.

There will be a major downturn in our Malaysian economy and indeed the global economy. There will be job losses. Malaysia is part of the global supply chain so there will be a lot of job losses and unemployment.

But the question is: in this situation, how are the resources of society going to be used? Will they be used to protect capital and rich people? Or will they be used to ensure the poor people and all the people in our country have enough food, health care and can meet their basic needs? That is where the contest is going to be.

When we try to mobilise people, saying that the resources of our country, our society, have to be used to provide the basic needs of the people, we get a lot of resonance. I think that is how we have to pitch it. We have to pitch it in language that people can understand.

In this time of crisis, the government cannot worry about maintaining the profits of the rich. We have to focus on the basic needs of the poor.

No one should go hungry, including foreign workers, no one should go without healthcare, no one should go without water. Housing should be provided.

So, if people cannot find jobs there has to be a Universal Basic Income (UBI). And if we are going to provide a UBI, why not then employ those people to do jobs that are socially required.

We need to reforest: our forests in Malaysia have been badly logged. We need to clean up our waste dump sites and have hygienic landfills. We need to clean up our urban flats as our urban areas have become urban ghettos. If we give UBI to people, why don’t we use that manpower to do the cleaning up and the work that our society needs?

That is the kind of packaging that we are trying to put forward to people, to get people on board an economic program that is meant for the masses and not for the top 1%.

As the left in Asia and Australia, we should look at areas like Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where the 700,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps face a real problem if COVID-19 breaks out there. We should do a conscious campaign to raise money and work with the Médecins Sans Frontières to help address the problem, because things could get very bad there and showing our solidarity in a real way like that would be good for us as a movement.

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