Planning for the end of lockdowns

AFTER almost two months of movement restriction to varying degrees around the world to curb the outbreak of Covid-19, some governments have started the process of re-opening their countries and easing the "lockdown" restrictions.

They are doing this to restore some semblance of normality to livelihoods that have been upended by these restrictions.

Governments are struggling with the decision to ease or end the lockdowns because it is not an easy one to make.

Drawing on my experience in government and being part of the decision-making, I know one thing is for sure — there is no correct way.

One way or another, the competing interests and priorities will always come to a head, and in the end, the decision must be a compromise of sorts — a grand bargain perhaps.

A phrase I would always use to convince those who were never happy with decisions made is that "the good must not be the enemy of the perfect".

In that spirit, I believe governments around the world must look at both the health, social and economic impact Covid-19 has had on the lives of their people and reach a decision that will ensure that these lockdowns do not do irreparable harm to our livelihood.

In Europe, there have been two competing approaches.

France and the United Kingdom have opted for prolonged and stricter lockdowns (and it makes sense) because both these countries have yet to "flatten the curve" of Covid-19 infections. The UK will likely come out of this outbreak the hardest hit in Europe.

Germany, on the other hand, has managed to keep their mortality rate low despite a very high number of infections. I have always been a fan of the Germans because they are always organised and prepared in a crisis.

Germany managed to trace their cases early, build "herd-immunity" in some instances and have one of the best intensive care systems in the world.

However, despite their success, the Germans opted for a middle path of sorts — with a gradual easing of the lockdown and a calibrated approach to ending the restrictions that have been in place.

On the other end of the spectrum are countries like Sweden that had one of the loosest lockdowns in place, and notwithstanding that, they have also managed to keep the rate of infections low.

So the European experience tells us that there is no one size fits all approach to ending these lockdowns and every approach has to be suited to the state of affairs in any given country.

New Zealand has been another bright spot in the fight against Covid-19. After imposing a stringent lockdown regime, the country has now seen no new infections of the virus and are already easing the restrictions that have been in place.

As such, many are also asking how Malaysia can approach the end of the MCO?

Malaysia has managed to ‘flatten the curve’ of the infections, and credit must go to our robust and supremely effective healthcare workers and for the decisive actions taken by the government.

Imposing any form of movement restrictions is never an easy decision. Still, our Prime Minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin bit the bullet and spared us the disaster of a widespread infection of Covid-19.

At the same time, various measures have been taken to soften the blow of the MCO, including the most significant economic stimulus package ever seen in Malaysia.

As the infections hover in the low to mid-double digits, there is some hope that the MCO will end on May 12.

But we also have to plan for the post-MCO period because it is going to be a tough couple of months for business and individuals.

The global economy will likely be in recession, and as a trading nation, Malaysia is very susceptible to its difficulties.

In this regard, IMF Chief Economist, Gita Gopinath issued an advisory on steps countries must take post-lockdown.

She said: “Policymakers must also plan for the recovery. As containment measures come off, policies should shift swiftly to supporting demand, incentivising firm hiring, and repairing balance sheets in the private and public sector to aid the recovery.

"The fiscal stimulus that is coordinated across countries with fiscal space will magnify the benefit for all economies. Moratoria on debt repayments and debt restructuring may need to be continued during the recovery phase.”

I believe this must happen in a structured and systematic manner. With the contraction of global growth and demand, Malaysia must be insular in planning for its economic recovery, and it is also an opportunity to put our economy on a more resilient footing.

The government can also take steps to redress the economic mistakes of the previous government, especially on taxation and the government's revenue base.

At the same time, incentives for businesses, including continued cheap credit and subsidies, will go a long way to cushioning the impact of the lockdown on companies.

Also, the staggered approach taken by the government to open up the economy is the right step because our priority must be to defeat Covid-19.

We must also see measures in place to protect the weakest members of our society, especially the old, infirm, economically marginalised and disabled. This section of society will need extra attention as we go through choppy waters.

Lastly, we need our politicians to stop playing the blame game. Covid-19 is not the fault of any one person or country. These things happen, and it is a lesson for us to be better prepared and more resilient.

It is a black swan moment for all of humanity, and we need to come together not only to defeat Covid-19 but to emerge from it stronger.

As they say, there is an opportunity in every crisis, and we must seize this moment.

Source: The Star

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