Covid-19 Exclusives: How Aware Are We?


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AS THE COMBINED Covid-19 cases reach a staggering 2 million and counting, global healthcare systems are being stretched beyond their limits.

Initial public response to the pandemic was met with indifference in Penang and Malaysia, says Dr. Hor Chee Peng, Secretary-General of the Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society and a clinical research associate by profession. “Awareness of the virus only heightened when major clusters were identified, prompting the Movement Control Order (MCO) to be imposed by the government,” he says. “Malaysia’s first wave of the epidemic was largely imported cases from China, mainly tourists from Wuhan and other parts of the country, and those who had direct contact with infected persons linked to the outbreak.”

“It is not difficult to see the striking similarities between the 1910-1911 plague in Northern Manchuria and the 2019-2020 novel coronavirus pandemic. The main difference is the scale of infection and the mortality rate of Covid-19 which has now surpassed the estimated 60,000 who succumbed to the Manchurian plague.”

Fast-forward to May, and public awareness still has yet to reach maximum level, observes Hor. During the first weeks of the partial lockdown, Penangites – mostly middle-aged and elderly folks – could still be seen out and about running daily errands. “Public awareness is very much tied to the availability and accessibility of vital information, including how easily the virus can be transmitted, examples of preventive measures and the rising fatality rates. As more information is revealed and disseminated through social media platforms, the more aware we become, resulting in a higher compliance rate.”

But such information is unlikely to reach a significant portion of Malaysia’s senior citizens since most are not technologically adept. In this regard, Malaysia still has a lot of work to do. And to avoid coronavirus fearmongering from the deluge of information on social media, discriminating verified news sources from fake ones is a must.

“For a country with a comparatively high literacy rate, public awareness is obviously present,” adds committee member Quah Seng Sun. “But we also have rule-breakers wanting to prove that they are able to get away with flouting government regulations. Our healthcare providers are giving their all to break the infection chain, it would be a shame if their hard work was in vain.”

“We are still seeing the emergence of small infection clusters; the number of persons breaching Covid-19 restrictions are also on the rise,” says Hor. “All essential measures to curb the virus’ spread is already in place, it is up to the public now to act responsibly by staying home to practice social distancing, and paying attention to self-hygiene like frequently washing hands and making sure to cover your face properly when sneezing or coughing,” he adds.

Dr. Hor Chee Peng.

“Our testing capacity needs to be scaled up for the entire community; there may still be asymptomatic carriers out there. Statistics show that up to a quarter of Covid-19 carriers are without noticeable symptoms, in addition to reports indicating that there could be silent spreaders fueling the pandemic. But more scientific backing is needed to conclusively confirm if asymptomatic persons are able to transmit the virus to others.”

The shortage of surgical masks in the market has also inspired many to DIY individual face masks. Resourceful, yes, but are they just as good? “The surgical 3-ply masks and the N95 are still the most effective. But homemade ones are better than no protection at all; they are capable of preventing the inhalation of microbes expelled from a cough or sneeze. In terms of effectiveness though, they are only 1/3 of the surgical mask.”

When asked about the mass hysteria of toilet roll-buying, Hor offers his take on the head-scratcher. “According to psychologists, it is a reflection of the game theory demonstrating that when everyone is engaging in panic-buying, the optimal strategy for most people is to follow suit. Economists, at the same, have discovered that by buying something relatively cheap like toilet rolls allows people to gain a sense of control over the situation. But this has somehow been erroneously associated with being a hygienic practice aimed at reducing the risk of transmission. Rather than buying what is really needed, perhaps purchasing toilet rolls gives some sense of comfort and security.”

Lessons to Learn from the Father of Modern Medicine

“It is not difficult to see the striking similarities between the 1910-1911 plague in Northern Manchuria and the 2019-2020 novel coronavirus pandemic. The main difference is the scale of infection and the mortality rate of Covid-19 which has now surpassed the estimated 60,000 who succumbed to the Manchurian plague,” explains Hor.

A significant preventive measure that proved to be the turning point of eradicating the plague bacillus was the imperial sanction to conduct a mass cremation of the infected corpses. It was the first mass cremation to be carried out in world history. One could not possibly imagine the degree of opposition faced by Wu Lien-Teh in obtaining the imperial sanction; it ran counter to the long-standing beliefs of filial piety among the Chinese. Adding to this, the mass cremation of 3,000 corpses coincided with the first day of Chinese New Year, on January 31, 1911.

“However, in view of Malaysia’s relatively low death toll and our local religious beliefs, mass cremation is currently not necessary,” says Hor. The National Forensic Service under the Ministry of Health devised a comprehensive guideline to manage the bodies of Covid-19 victims in accordance with religious practices approved by the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs Malaysia on March 15. This was followed up with the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism on March 16.

For Muslims, the tayammum, a dry ritual purification using purified dust or sand instead of ritual washing with water, is allowed on the surface of the body bag of the deceased. For other religions, these rituals can only be conducted on the surface of the body bag. Direct contact with the deceased’s body is strictly prohibited.

A Tribute:

The Plague Fighter - A Brief Retrospect

By Khoo Soo Hay,
Founding Member of the Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society, Penang.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago on 10th of March 1879, there was born
The eighth son of a Sinning couple by the name of Ng Khee Hock and Lam Choy Fun,
Who named their fourth son Ng Leen Tuck, meaning in Chinese, “Five United Virtues”.
Or in Mandarin, “Wu Lien-Teh", but in Penang Free School registered
As “Gnoh Lean Teik” by the Hokkien School Clerk, Mr Kam Im-Keat,
And when in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he ended up as Gnoh Lean Tuck.
Whether it was Ng, Gnoh, Wu, Teik, or Tuck, he was an Old Free,
Penang-born on China Street, brought into the world by a Malay bidan,
And like his ten siblings all breast-fed by their mother, no condensed milk then.

In 1886 he entered Penang Free School at the age of seven.
In 1893 through to 1896 under Head Master Mr William Hargreaves,
Gnoh Lean Tuck’s academic achievements won him the Queen Scholarship
And he applied and was admitted to Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Under the advice of Mr R.J. Wilkinson, then First Magistrate of Penang.
 Gnoh Lean Tuck embarked on 7th August on the P. & O. boat “Pekin”,
And at Colombo on the 11th, changed to the larger vessel, “Ballarat”.
Before reaching Gibraltar, he decided to rid himself of his queue,
Hallmark of the Chinese world-wide, but in reality
The very symbol of Chinese servitude to the Manchu Emperor.
Remember this was before China became a Republic.

Emmanuel College, founded in 1584 by Sir Walter Midway
Produced John Harvard, (1607-1638) who emigrated to America,
Prospered and founded Harvard University in Cambridge,
Near Boston, Massachusetts in 1636 with a gift of 780 Pounds
And two hundred and sixty books, which in its 378 years
Has been at the forefront of seeking knowledge
And producing Nobel Prize winners.

Wu Lien-Teh spent five and a quarter years in Cambridge
From 1897 to 1902 when he qualified as M.D. well before his time
At the age of twenty-four, and had to wait for another two years or more
Before officially being awarded the coveted Degree.
While at Emmanuel he won two Awards, that of Exhibitioner in Natural Sciences
And also made a Foundation Scholar, both of which carried some financial reward.
From Emmanuel he spent his University Scholarship at St. Mary’s Hospital
At which he was the first Chinese student ever admitted.
While at St. Mary’s he won four prizes, The Special Prize in Clinical Surgery,
And in Medicine, the Kerslake Scholarship in Pathology, all in 1901
Followed by the Cheadle Gold Medal for Clinical Medicine in 1902.
He reported that it was at St. Mary’s Hospital that Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin.

He spent six months as House Physician at Brompton Hospital
For Consumption Disease of the Chest in South West London,
Before accepting the Emmanuel College post-graduate Research Studentship
Which he elected to do at the Institute of Medical Research in Malaya.
Prior to returning to Malaya, he spent eight months in 1903
At the Halle-an-der-Salle institute under Prof Karl Frankel,
And at the Pasteur Institute in Paris under Prof Metchnikoff,
Both of which were well known for their research into bacteriology.

Wu Lien-Teh arrived back in Singapore by ship at the end of September 1903
And was met by Dr. Lim Boon-Keng, the first Queen’s Scholar,
Whose sister-in-law, Ruth Huang became his fiancée,
Their marriage was solemnised at the American Methodist Church
In Singapore in July1905 two years later.
According to Wu Lien-Teh, he was fortunate that he was not required
To convert to Christianity and continued to be a filial son,
Sticking to his Taoist and Confucian family roots.
As for his first family history, it was tragic in a sense, in that
Ruth died quite young in 1937, at 53 years of age.
And his three sons also died prematurely.
The eldest, named Davenport, Chang-Keng, born in 1906 at Love Lane, Penang
Survived long enough to obtain his tertiary education and M.D. in the States
And London, and worked for the Peking Municipality.
However, he died, age thirty-six, of tubercular infection in November 1942 in Peking
His second son, Tommy, Chang-Fu, born in Tientsin, China,
Died of pneumonia complications in 1925 at the age of sixteen.
The third son, Willy, Chang-Ming, born in 1911 died six months after birth
Due to bacillary dysentery in Yamei Kin’s Hospital, Tientsin.

Wu Lien-Teh's second family began with his marriage to Marie, Shu Chiung,
Who was born in Kirin, Manchuria, of Cantonese parentage.
From her he had three daughters and two sons, all of which survived him.
The eldest was Betty, Yu Lin, followed by Ellen, Yu Chen, Fred, Chang-Sheng,
John, Chang-Yu, all of whom were born in China,
And the last, Pearl, Yu Chu was born in Ipoh, Perak,
Whom I used to know when the family lived in Penang.
After his time at the Institute of Medical Research was over,
He started his medical practice at Chulia Street and lived in Green Hall,
Until he was invited to accept the appointment by the Grand Councilor,
Yuan Shi-Kai of China to be the Vice-Director of Imperial Army Medical College in Tientsin.
He left early in May 1908 for Shanghai in the North German Lloyd liner, “Prinzessin Alice”.
Prior to his leaving for Tientsin, Wu Lien-Teh paid a visit to England,
Where he attended a big Anti-Opium Meeting at Queen’s Hall in London,
Where he gave an address which was well-received by the participants.
Before that, while he was in Penang, he carried out anti-opium activities,
Which led to his prosecution by the authorities for possessing, without license,
“An ounce of tincture of opium” and was fined one hundred Straits dollars.

In 1910, he was called to Harbin in Manchuria to end the bubonic plague,
A disease that was claiming thousands of lives, both Chinese and Russian.
How he did it has been well-recorded in his autobiography,
And in the medical history of bacteriology in the world, more than a century ago.
You can read a short summary of Wu Lien-Teh’s life, in an article
Published in the book, “Doctors Extraordinaire” by Ho Tak Ming in August 1983.
All I can say is that in his autobiography, you will not only find his life history
And contribution to medical science, but the amount of history
And important people who lived at that time and their contributions
Should actually be a text book for historians, medical and political.
It is with much regret, in retrospect, that only a century after what this medical man
From Penang Free School had contributed, that at last we are giving him due recognition
Of his life and what he had done for the world, and by reflection for his country, Malaya then, with the formation of the Dr. Wu Lien-Teh Society of Penang, spearheaded by none other
Than my good friend, an old Free, Dato’ Prof Dr. Anwar Fazal
At its Inaugural Meeting on 14th October 2012 held at the Penang Medical College.
The Society was duly approved by the Registrar of Societies.


Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.

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