Coronavirus pandemic should make us reflect on what really matters

The coronavirus pandemic should make us take stock of what really matters in our lives.

Mar 21, 2020

By Anil Netto
The coronavirus pandemic should make us take stock of what really matters in our lives.

For me, the key takeaway is that we must ensure we have a robust public healthcare system that can handle crisis and emergency situations.

For too long, we have underfunded our government hospitals and clinics, spending only around two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on public healthcare. (The private healthcare sector spends another two per cent). We should be spending at least six per cent of GDP on healthcare.

The result of this underfunding is that our public hospitals are crammed, with beds being placed all over the place, as our poor specialists, doctors and nurses struggle to cope with their heavy workload.

We are also critically short of ICU beds, with only 691 beds in 56 government hospitals (Malaysian Registry of Intensive Care Report 2017).

These beds are usually around 90 per cent occupied (2013-2017). Perhaps a more ideal optimum ratio should be around 70-75 per cent.

If ICU beds are almost full during normal times, how do we cope during times of crisis or epidemic, let alone a pandemic?

This is why we need to ensure we have a proper public healthcare system staffed by the best medical experts and specialists in the country.

This is one of the reasons China has been able to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the country. The number of cases seems to have reached a plateau at around 81,000 cases, with only a few new cases every day.

China is showing us that the rapid spread of the coronavirus can be contained – even without a Covid-19 vaccine. The key seems to be some of its meticulous and stringent preventive measures, backed by strong political will and the ability to marshal its tremendous logistical and financial resources.

In contrast, Italy, which spends 8-9 per cent of GDP on healthcare, has suffered greatly. Although its healthcare system was once one of the world’s best, it has been hit by shortsighted healthcare spending cuts. So this was a crisis in the making for them after years of austerity cuts. (I have an academic friend in Italy who used to complain similarly about cuts in funding for universities as well.)

Even the United States is unprepared for a pandemic of this nature. Although it spends  about 18 per cent of GDP on healthcare – that’s about double the average of the developed nations, much of it is inefficient or goes to the private sector.

Some might even say that the US barely has a “public healthcare” system as such, ie to take care of those most in need of treatment and who cannot afford private healthcare or medical insurance.

For us in Malaysia, this is all the more reason to ensure we have a strong, adequately funded public healthcare system and to support our medical staff. We need to stem the brain drain of experienced specialists, doctors, nurses and support staff to the private sector by recognising and rewarding them without discrimination.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our seriously misguided policy of focusing on medical tourism instead of the needs of the local people. This has aggravated the brain drain to the private sector.

The pandemic has also shown up our shortsighted policy of charging higher fees for for eigners turning up at government hospitals. Undocumented migrants are also afraid of going to government hospitals for treatment for fear of being detained.

The indirect exclusion of millions of migrants from the public healthcare system worsens the situation during times of crisis and, thankfully, this has been recognised during the present crisis and some measures have been taken to encourage migrants to seek treatment. Our hospitals, should rightly, be open for all who are resident in the country, for treatment at minimal rates.

A silver lining behind this pandemic is that we realise which of our activities are really necessary and which only add more stress and pollution to our lives.

By spending more time indoors, we may get a chance to smell the roses (or the scent of hot coffee), read a book, actually phone (instead of text) a friend or relative, listen to calming music.

Less traffic on the road will give nature some breathing space. Our air will be cleaner with less traffic on the roads. Perhaps we will rediscover our neighbours and establish local social solidarity.

But many workers will suffer because of the weak economy and businesses being affected. We can also reflect on the sudden takeover of a legitimately elected government during this time of crisis.

Let us continue to pray for a speedy end to this crisis.

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