The balance between lives and livelihood

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KUCHING: The National Security Council had imposed the Movement Control Order (MCO) 3.0, effective 25 May until 7 June, to curb the ever-increasing COVID-19 infections throughout the nation.

However, the economic sectors are allowed to keep businesses open, albeit with stricter standard operating protocols (SOPs) being put in place, as the government tries to balance the importance of health with economic survival. 

Since the MCO 1.0, the state government, through the Sarawak State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC), had consistently decided that targeted Controlled MCOs were more appropriate approaches, with the MCOs imposed only on specific areas registering high cases of infections.

There are some people who argue for the imposition of a total lockdown, even to the extent of accusing the authorities concerned of being irresponsible and playing with people’s lives for doing otherwise.

A lot of lessons had (or should have) been learnt from the first MCO in March 2020, including the socioeconomic ramifications from a total lockdown on ordinary people who have to pay monthly loan instalments and bills as well as put food  on the table.

Senior Minister (Security), Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, mentioned recently that the country suffered losses amounting to RM2.4 billion per day during the MCO 1.0.

To mitigate the fallouts, the government announced moratoriums on loans and various waivers on business premise rentals and utilities, and employers chipped in by providing essential items and food to lessen their employees’ burden, but it has already been more than a year since then and capital is depleting. 

How long can the government or employers “give fish” to the people?

As always, they will have to “fish” and fend again, sooner or later, for themselves.

The federal government might have had that in mind when they introduced PEMERKASA (Program Strategik Memperkasa Rakyat dan Ekonomi) and Bantuan Prihatin Rakyat to stimulate economic activities, provide the much-needed employment, and tide the people over until situations are favourable.

Three entrepreneurs who supported the SDMC’s decision to go the CMCO way were asked by the SDMC to share their opinions on the impact of the MCO on industries.

Shahrir Iman, a business owner employing 120 employees in the construction industry in Sarawak, fully supports the steps taken by the government to balance public safety and health with the economic survival of local businesses and workers.   

“We are in the construction industry, where our income relies on construction works performed at sites. Imposing a MCO would result in slow or no progress at our project sites, which would be detrimental to the survival of our business. On top of that, half of our employees rely on daily wages. A MCO would mean no income at all for them,” explained Shahrir. 

A targeted CMCO means that construction works can still proceed, which in turn provide work opportunities for construction professionals and workers.

Melvin Liew Yik Hung, who operates the Izakaya Japanese Restaurant and the iCube Innovation Hub, concurred with Shahrir that the current economic situation and the significant rise in unemployment rate would mean more suffering if a MCO was to be re-imposed in Sarawak.

“We see a rise in upskilling and reskilling, for those who are fortunate. Those who are not as fortunate might not be able to withstand the drastic impact,” he said. 

From a food and beverage operator’s perspective, revenue has declined, resulting in difficulties in sustaining the business and retaining employees, whereas smaller F&B operators will be majorly impacted from the drop of sales. 

From an innovation hub operator’s perspective, Melvin said, medium-sized enterprises are downscaling and decentralising, causing a decrease in productivity and efficiency.

There is a rise in freelancers due to high unemployment rate, causing the inability for them to benefit from major upskilling programs provided, which mainly cater to those newly employed or fortunate enough to be employed. 

Charles Liew Tchen-Tchii, a solicitor that has been involved in the healthcare industry for the last ten years, specifically as the managing director with SHiNE Pharmacy Sdn Bhd, admitted to being surprise with the announcement about the MCOs by the federal government.

According to him, in spite of the rising number of cases in Sarawak, the general sentiment was that the  local pandemic situation was very much under control, with strict protocols being adhered to by the majority of responsible business owners as well as consumers. 

As such, any implementation of a strict MCO in Sarawak would shake the local socioeconomic ecosystem that in recent months had slowly but surely started to show signs of recovery.

According to Charles, the stabilisation of the local economy from the pandemic trauma would be hugely reversed if a MCO gets forced upon the state.

“I am convinced that the SDMC knows best and have the situation under control, and that if a MCO is warranted, they would be the first people to err on the side of caution and enforce it forthwith,” he opined.

“While many may think the healthcare industry, or more specifically the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries, would emerge unscathed from any MCO, the truth is that this may only hold true for large chain pharmacies with ready resources to sustain and capitalise.”

Smaller community pharmacies, which form 90% of the local pharmacy market, still do not yet have e-commerce web presence or delivery service, to name a few. With rental, staff salary and other costs to pay, smaller community pharmacies, almost all locally-owned, will suffer.

Charles was fully agreeable with the SDMC’s decision to maintain the CMCO. 

“The spike in numbers was obviously a result of the continued efforts to trace and to eventually isolate where necessary. The easy thing to do is to not trace, resulting in no cases reported, as in some poorer countries, but that is clearly not the case here, and we should be grateful,” he said. 

The CMCO means Sarawak could continue to make small steps in the right direction towards full economic recovery, and at the same time, help to maintain standards of living for all Sarawakians. 

The knock-on negative multiplier effects of any MCO, economically speaking, would eventually only really hurt the low income earners, and the state is prudent in protecting the most vulnerable.

Like Shahrir and Melvin, Charles urged everyone to take the most basic of precautions, like wearing masks and sanitising thoroughly, and ensuring all loved ones do the same. 

“And please get yourself signed up for vaccination because the sooner everyone gets vaccinated, the sooner press statements like this (from SDMC) become a thing of the past,” he said.

Charles, who is also a TEDx speaker, has more insights into the conversations out there in the business world as he is also the host for a business talk show, ‘BizChat with Charles Liew’, produced by TVS.

This program is unique because it has a Sarawakian flavour and features real local business people talking about how they cope with real business issues and challenges, and find new opportunities and hope, in the current era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘BizChat with Charles Liew’ is on air every Thursday at 11.15 a.m. with reruns on Sundays at 1.15 p.m. and Mondays at 5.30 a.m. on TVS Channel 122 Astro and myTV.

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