On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Catch-22 a-calling

THE most disturbing news of the week has to be Covid-19 returning with a vengeance. Sure, it never went away, but this looks to be the scariest wave of the pandemic yet.

The Health Ministry announced yesterday the disturbing news that we had 317 new confirmed cases, the highest number of infections since Malaysia became a casualty of the deadly virus.

Sabah and Kedah recorded the highest numbers yesterday, with 155 and 102 respectively.

The signs have been growing. New cases reported on Friday had already reached 287.

The bulk of them (128) were from the jail in Kedah identified as the Tembok cluster, while two new clusters were identified in Selangor, Seri Anggerik (eight cases) and Seri Setia (one case).

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said Malaysia was probably experiencing a “new wave” as the number of cases continued to climb.

“If we look at the chart, we have an increase in cases lately. That probably is the beginning of a new wave,” he told a press conference on Thursday.

We seem to have gone back to the movement control order (MCO) period when we registered 190 cases on March 15.

Dr Noor didn’t mince his words when he tweeted on Thursday, “How about all stay at Home for awhile again?”, which hinted his frustration, and likely echoed that of the frontliners’.

He downplayed it later, explaining that it was merely an advisory, and suggested that Malaysians who need not be out and about should just stay at home.

Basically, if we need to leave the house, we should adhere to the standard operating procedures (SOPs) installed by the Health Ministry since Day One of the MCO in March, and the reason we have arrived at the recovery MCO stage.

Dr Noor’s tweet has snapped us out of our false sense of security, since alarming triple-digit figures have returned.

The number of new cases on Saturday was the highest registered ever in the country. During the first wave of Covid-19 cases in March and April, daily figures were below 260, although at that time, Malaysia’s testing capacity was below the current level.

Active cases yesterday reached 1,735, a level unseen since late April.

The number of Malaysians who found themselves infected while campaigning in the recent Sabah state elections has certainly set alarm bells ringing.

Last week, 35 teachers and 67 students were exposed to two SMK Pendamar Jaya female students who tested positive for Covid-19.

The girls and their family members had gone home to Sabah recently to attend a wedding, and a few of them tested positive for Covid-19 not long after returning to the peninsula. The family lives in Bukit Tinggi, which is close to Klang.

The school was not asked to close, with state health director Datuk Dr Sha’ari Ngadiman saying the infected students’ contact with other students was minimal.

He assured that necessary measures had been taken, but until the second tests are conducted on the teachers and students, parents, teachers and students will be on tenterhooks.

A different approach was taken in Penang. The school SK Per-matang Janggus, Penaga, was ordered to close from Thursday till Oct 8 after a teacher there tested positive for Covid-19.

Penang State Education Depart-ment director Abdul Rashid Abdul Samad said the closure order was issued to curb the virus’ spread.

“At the moment, the school will be closed for eight days and any other decision will be made after a meeting with the Ministry of Health (MOH),” he said.

So, two different approaches are being taken. The fear now is that more school children could be affected. It’s impossible for there to be zero infections because until a vaccine is found, we simply have to learn to live with this killer virus.

We must protect ourselves and stop being complacent, or even think it won’t affect us.

The consolation is that the authorities have now become more adept at dealing with the outbreak, and as Dr Noor has continually reminded, the onus is still on us to flatten the curve of the rate of infections by adhering to government guidelines.

But staring at us is the possibility of a general election being called within the first quarter of 2021.

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is facing enormous pressure to call for a general election. It isn’t only because Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim claims he has enough Members of Parliament with him.

There are Umno lawmakers, especially those not holding government posts or facing multiple charges in courts, pushing for snap polls, too.

Also, Sarawak is already preparing for the prospect of state elections, and time is running out since Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Abang Openg must call for polls by June 2021.

Talk is that the Federal Government wants him to hold the state polls simultaneously with the general election, and that can only mean by the first quarter of 2021.

As Anwar waits for an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, it’s very unlikely that the King will simply consent for him to be installed as PM.

He would need to consult the current PM, too, to be assured Muhyiddin still commands the majority, even if it’s wafer thin. The two likely options include either asking for Parliament to be dissolved or waiting for Dewan Rakyat to reconvene next month.

Dewan Rakyat will sit from Nov 2 to Dec 15, with the Budget to be tabled on Nov 6, and it’s almost a certainty that this will be an election budget.

Muhyiddin will surely take every opportunity to conjure populist measures that will help him win the elections, particularly continuing relief for Malaysians, what with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging.

Then, there’s the 12th Malaysian Plan, which will be tabled in Parliament in January – and that will again be used to mirror the manifesto of the present federal government as it takes the final lap before dissolving Parliament.

Until these two important matters are tabled and settled, it’s unlikely that the GE will be held next month or in December, because there are no signs the machinery has been activated.

These plans will surely help Muhyiddin be portrayed as a credible leader to lead the country and earn him the mandate he desperately needs.

The endless politicking and instability have come at a heavy cost to Malaysia.

Foreign investors will not pour money into Malaysia if they are unsure who the PM will be tomorrow.

The longer we wait for elections to be called, the worse it will be for all of us, so the scenario is looking like a double-edged sword.

The concern here is, if the general election is called, we will have a serious problem dealing with the potential of a spike in Covid-19 cases, like with Sabah following its recent campaign.

Last week, financial analyst Fitch Solutions revealed its prediction that politics in Malaysia is expected to blunt economic growth for the next decade.

Combined with slower population growth and reduced fiscal space to cushion against negative future economic shocks, Fitch predicts real GDP growth to be at just 3.4% over the next 10 years, compared to 6.4% over the past decade.

“Having exhausted avenues of growth provided by lower-level industrialisation, Malaysia has to upgrade its economy in order to escape the middle-income trap,” it said in a commentary.

Fitch Solutions said any effort to upgrade the Malaysian economy may be hampered by political uncertainty and stalling reform momentum amid a shift toward populism, which is likely to present serious risks to its success.

The endless politicking, the worsening Covid-19 situation and the continuing slide in business and economy are dogging Malaysia. So, the least we can do now is restore political stability.