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THE STRUGGLE AGAINST Covid-19 will be a long one. To quote Penang chief minister, Chow Kon Yeow: “This is a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. We have to be vigilant both physically and mentally till the end.”
It is definitely too early to talk about achievements. But the fact remains, by the end of the first phase of the Malaysian government’s Movement Control Order (MCO) from March 18-31, 2020, Penang managed to keep the cases of Covid-19 below 100 and was ranked number 10 out of 13 states and KL, the national capital where the number of cases are concerned.
Penang being the most densely populated state in Malaysia, this is no small feat. Higher density means people are more closely clustered together and benefits of social distancing are more difficult to attain in such a place.
Realising this huge challenge, we started work to curb the disease as early as we could. As early as on March 5, when Malaysia was just alerted by news of a second wave of Covid-19 infections, Chow had already begun discussing the situation within the state government. That same day, the state government advised organisers to cancel the hugely popular annual Japanese Yosakoi festival which was supposed to be held in Penang four days later that same week.
By March 11, anticipating a serious battle ahead, the chief minister issued a directive to stop all events involving public gatherings in the state.
Two days later, on March 13, he told us to work on setting up a Covid-19 communication and strategy team.
On the afternoon of March 16, he launched the “Penang Lawan Covid-19” (Penang Fights Covid-19) campaign, becoming the first state in Malaysia to do so. It was on that same evening that the Prime Minister announced a nationwide MCO.
The Three C’s of Penang Lawan Covid-19
The Penang campaign can be summarised into three key strategical areas: 1) Controlling the epidemic; 2) Communicating with the public; and 3) Containing the impact of the disease.
Controlling the epidemic
The chief minister directs the management of Covid-19 related issues in Penang via the Special Committee on State Security, which he chairs. This state-level “war room” coordinates the work between federal and state agencies in matters pertaining to Covid-19.
Because we believe that fighting Covid-19 must be a bipartisan effort, Chow appointed state Opposition Leader, Datuk Muhamad Yusoff onto his “war room” committee. And despite being from different political parties, the Penang state government was the first to express full support of the federal MCO.
The two city councils within Penang were instructed to set up a Special Covid-19 Task Force in their respective cities. Through these task forces, about 5,000 staff were mobilised towards two key tasks, i.e. enforcement of the MCO, and cleaning and disinfection. City council enforcement officers worked alongside federal law enforcement agencies to ensure compliance with the MCO especially in places such as food courts, markets and restaurants.
Business premises and factories which were allowed to operate are monitored to ensure that public health measures such as social distancing are observed. By the end of the first stage of MCO, Penang had achieved almost 99% compliance rate.
Another key measure under this strategy was to ensure that the frontliners, especially medical workers, have enough equipment to do their work. Throughout the first stage of the MCO, protective gears such as PPE, face masks, face shields, sanitisers, and medical equipment such as hospital beds and infrared thermometers were first distributed to frontliners. In fact, the state government has allocated RM10mil to guarantee sufficient hospital supply throughout the MCO period and beyond.
Communicating with the public
From the onset, the state government adopted a clear, speedy and transparent communication strategy, convinced that only with the right information delivered concisely and quickly, can the public help fight this epidemic.
Penang is the only state government in Malaysia to develop dedicated platforms for public messaging. The Penang campaign runs a website, a Facebook page with very active engagements, a Telegram channel, and telephone hotlines. While the federal government uses its own communication channels, the state platforms provide localised content for Penang.
Advisory and educational materials in the form of billboards, posters and videos in the national language as well as in English, Chinese and Tamil have been disseminated.
The chief minister himself updates the people daily via Facebook Live broadcast. His message is always kept concise, reporting on the latest situation, informing what actions have been taken by the government and advising the public whenever necessary. Due to its consistency, this daily broadcast quickly became something people in Penang looked forward to everyday to receive the latest updates on the situation in the state.
Containing the impact of the disease
As mentioned earlier, one of the features of the Penang campaign was that necessary measures were taken very early. We looked at possible scenarios and then planned ahead.
The “Penang Lawan Covid-19” campaign was launched already before the nationwide MCO was announced, and Penang was the first state to announce a RM20mil stimulus package to cushion the detrimental socioeconomic effects of the MCO, a day before MCO commenced. A week later, another RM55mil was added to the original package, making up a total of RM75mil.
Penang was also the first state to disburse financial assistance from our stimulus package to the target groups. This was done on April 1, 2020.
The stimulus package, dubbed Penang Relief Package, or Pakej Bantuan Rakyat Pulau Pinang, has three objectives:
- Provide immediate financial relief to the most vulnerable groups, such as hawkers, petty traders, taxi and e-hailing drivers, trishaw riders, and the bottom 40% (B40) income group;
- Enable the working class to bounce back, retain their jobs and rebuild themselves and their family through dignified work; and
- Ensure business continuity and sustainability especially among SMEs in Penang.
The state government also already promised a second round of assistance then, for when the need arose in the near future.
Presently, plans are being made to prepare the state for a post-MCO world. We are already exploring potential scenarios in what pundits call the “Next Normal”. The state is anticipating a re-adaption of our institutions, as well as our economic and social policies to face the challenges of the future.
Steven Sim is the Member of Parliament for Bukit Mertajam and Director of the Penang Lawan Covid-19 campaign in charge of communication and citizen empowerment.