But this time, the country is facing bigger hurdles with pandemic fatigue, increasing sporadic cases and new, potentially more malicious variants of coronavirus.
With changing circumstances and nature of the pandemic, a new strategy is required. For a more effective management of the pandemic, five recommendations are outlined here:
1) Intensify evidence-based policy interventions
Evidence-based policymaking depends on reliable data. In addition to healthcare data and demographic data, behavioural data of the population should be collected.
Behavioural data is especially important considering the challenges faced by the authorities in ensuring compliance to the SOP. With behavioural data, appropriate behavioural interventions can be introduced, as outlined in recommendation #2 below.
Consolidated data should be regularly analysed by a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, economists and behavioural insights practitioners, among others.
2) Employ behaviourally-informed interventions
Compliance to the SOP and other forms of government interventions depends very much on the behaviours of the population.
While enforcement seems a logical approach to ensure compliance, enforcement is resource intensive, costly and oftentimes, ineffective. This is evident from the frequent incidents of SOP incompliances, as reported in the media.
It is essential that any intervention introduced consider the wide-ranging behaviours of the entire population. Behavioural data of different groups can be collected through survey, interview and various other methods, most of which can be conducted on-line.
Based on behavioural gaps and barriers, customised and targeted interventions can be developed for different groups of population depending on age group, economic sector, local conditions etc.
3) Identify gaps in the SOP and make the SOP easier for compliance
Gaps in the SOP should be identified, particularly for SOP that applies to hot spot or high-risk areas.
For example, aisles in many groceries, sundries and mom-and-pop shops are typically less than 1 meter wide, making it impossible for customers to practice physical distancing when another customer walks along the same aisle.
Even when shop owners limit the number of customers entering their shops, there are bound to be challenges in practicing physical distancing.
As it is impractical for shop owners to monitor every movement of customers, the authorities should develop practical guideline to ensure compliance in physical distancing, with inputs from relevant stakeholders.
The SOP and public awareness messages should be made more salient and delivered in a simple language with visual aids, such as poster, infographic or video.
Use of different languages, even local dialects should be considered according to the needs of each target group. This recommendation goes hand in hand with recommendation #2 to cater for the prevailing behavioural gaps and barriers.
4) Eliminate information overload
A lot of information, of different types and in various forms, is being fed to the public on daily basis through the official channel. This situation leads to information overload, and worst, confusion among the public. There is a need to manage information and improve communication to the public.
The official MKN Telegram channel should be used to share essential national-level information only whereas other fine details can be published in a separate portal, with appropriate links provided in the channel for those who need to access additional information.
Additionally, state-level official social media channels should be created to disseminate customised and relevant messages specific to the state population only.
5) Partnership based on whole-of-society approach
Considering that the pandemic concerns the whole population and involves multiple stakeholders at federal, state, local and community levels, the government should initiate and expand partnership based on a whole-of-society approach.
Engagement across multi-sectoral stakeholders must be done to achieve effectiveness and efficiency in any intervention and SOP implementation across all levels of society. Active participation of key stakeholders should be facilitated in the decision-making process.
Proactive mitigation measures should be implemented in partnership with the private sector and the NGOs too, based on the available resources and expertise.
Combined with the game-changing National Immunisation Programme, hopefully Malaysia will get out of the pandemic sooner.
Mohammad Abdul Hamid
Public Policy Consultant & NGO activist – Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia