Covid-19 pandemic and the rule of law — Leonard Yeoh and Nurul Qarirah

SEPTEMBER 14 — Malaysia had made numerous features in international media this year, with high praise for making great strides in managing the Covid-19 outbreak. The government had acted swiftly to put the spread of Covid-19 under control, by putting in place not only movement restrictions but also multiple economic initiatives to ensure as minimal impact as possible on the lives of Malaysians.

Covid-19 situation in Malaysia

Earlier in March, Malaysia began to report high numbers of daily Covid-19 cases, prompting the government to impose a Movement Control Order (MCO) nationwide. Most Malaysians had to spend almost three months inside their homes with very minimal outdoor activities in order to curb the spread of Covid-19. The immediate goal during that time was to break the chain of infections in Malaysia.

Malaysia began to reopen its economic and social sectors once again under the recovery movement control order (RMCO). Under the RMCO, most Malaysians now find that their lives are back to normal to a certain extent, with several restrictions still in place.

Among the restrictions are the compulsory wearing of face mask in public spaces, requirement of compliance with outlined SOPs, the use of phone apps to track movements and limited opening hours for business premises.

Legal measures to curb the spread

The power of the government to impose restrictive measures outlined above is derived from the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (“the Act”). The minister is given wide powers to prescribe the measures to be taken to curb the spread of any infectious disease.

Non-compliance with the prescribed measures would be an offence, which can be compounded up to RM1,000 or if prosecuted, can be subject to imprisonment and/or fine.

There have been numerous reports of individuals being compounded with the maximum RM1,000 for failing to wear face masks in public spaces. There are also non-compliant individuals committed to prison for varying terms.

Only last month, one individual who was found to be responsible for spreading Covid-19 and caused a cluster was fined RM12,000 and subjected to 5 months in prison due to multiple violations of home quarantine orders.

Rule of law

Although these penalties are harsh, they are arguably necessary to ensure that Malaysians continue to observe the relevant measures to prevent a subsequent wave of Covid-19 outbreak. However, there have been voices of dissatisfaction especially in the online sphere since it was perceived that the authorities have not been entirely consistent with the imposition of penalties.

Even during the MCO itself, there have been news of several VIPs moving around, visiting others and even hosting large gatherings. Recently, there were also reports of a VIP who failed to observe home quarantine after returning from a high-risk country. These violations however were merely subjected to fines.

The perceptions of double standards in enforcing the relevant restrictions should not be dismissed and taken lightly. It is imperative to uphold the Rule of Law, where everyone is equal before the law.

Malaysia’s success in curbing the spread of Covid-19 depends not only on the measures introduced by the government, but also with the cooperation of Malaysian citizens. Most Malaysians have been vigilant in ensuring that they comply with the required preventive measures.

However as the pandemic continues with no end in sight, Malaysians may find themselves feeling fatigued and burned out or worse, they may feel that any preventive measure is pointless.

It is important that everyone remains motivated to continue living alongside the existence of Covid-19, at least until an effective vaccine is developed. The government must continue to not only remind its citizens to remain vigilant, but to also show its commitments in enforcing the rule of law against all citizens alike.

Covid-19 does not discriminate between the rich and the poor nor the powerful and the powerless. The government should also continue to improve the quality and capacity of the healthcare system, while ensuring that the welfare of healthcare workers and frontliners are protected.

Fighting Covid-19 has often been likened to running a marathon, except that this is one we had never signed up nor trained for. Malaysia has managed the outbreak reasonably well but the war is far from over. Malaysians should continue to be cautious as the possibility of a subsequent Covid-19 wave continues to exist.

We should all play our parts while at the same time continue to keep our spirits high.

* Leonard Yeoh and Nurul Qarirah are advocates and solicitors practising in Kuala Lumpur.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.