UNDERFUNDED, understaffed, underpaid and underappreciated. I wrote these four words in the opening paragraph of this column on Jan 2 this year, a month before the Covid-19 pandemic exploded bringing with it dire consequences like the world has never seen before in our lifetime.
That column entitled “Our truly unsung heroes” describes the tens of thousands of men and women who manage the nation’s public sector healthcare or simply put, staff of the Ministry of Health.
Can you and I imagine what the realistic situation facing them is over the past 10 months or so, particularly for the countless number of frontliners who are risking lives daily dealing directly or indirectly with patients who are confirmed positive carriers of the deadly virus?
No words can do justice to what they are going through. Not even the most creative wordsmiths can come up with one.
And I must add that even to say now that they are truly our unsung heroes is a gross understatement.
With Covid-19 raging even more furiously now following the “unfortunate” staging of the Sabah election last month, the Ministry of Health must certainly be even much, much more underfunded, understaffed and underpaid now with overcrowded hospitals, clinics and other facilities.
But one thing for sure, they are not underappreciated anymore by members of the public, who took their selfless service too much for granted in pre-pandemic times.
With Budget 2021 set to be presented in Parliament on Nov 6, irrespective of the political controversies surrounding it, the one and only item on my wish list is for the Ministry of Finance to drastically cut allocations for non-critical or non-essential procurements and services and instead channel the money to the Ministry of Health.
I can understand that Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Abdul Aziz is well aware of the Ministry of Health’s pressing needs and although he’s not a politician, this is the time for him to show his political will to say no to too much wastages in the running of the bloated bureaucracy as regularly highlighted in the Auditor-General’s Report and to channel the funds to where it matters most.
The Budget is not only a baptism of fire for our finance minister but without doubt the toughest one to cobble up in the nation’s history.
It’s most reassuring to know that Malaysians from all walks of life have shown overwhelming chorus of support for the decree from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah for all members of Parliament to support the Budget.
The MPs from the various parties have agreed for a political ceasefire and we now want to see them keep their word in the coming Budget sitting, boisterous as the sessions are expected to be.
Having said that, we are also all aware that with hundreds of billions already or being spent in containing the pandemic, the Treasury’s financial affordability is being tested to the maximum.
If all the secretaries-general as administrative heads of their ministries – except the Ministry of Health which is in urgent need for more resources – care to go through with a fine toothcomb the various items in their expenditure, there are several or even many non-critical or non-essential ones that they can let go or sacrifice.
Some NGOs have appealed for instance, for a moratorium on the purchase of military hardware at this time. And for that matter, we don’t need to proceed with wasteful spendings on prestigious or non-essential projects or programmes already approved.
In this way, their reduced allocations can then be channelled to the Ministry of Health to save lives and livelihoods.
At this time when all hands on deck fighting the pandemic, I regard as outrageous the recent call by Cuepacs, the umbrella body for employee unions in the civil service, for the government to grant bonus to civil servants in Budget 2021.
Paying our 1.6 million-strong civil service plus some 850,000 pensioners is already one of the biggest financial headaches for the government.
They should instead be grateful and bersyukur (thankful to Almighty God) that unlike employees in the private sector where there’s been massive retrenchments, pay cuts and unpaid leave, none of the civil servants faces retrenchment while pensioners are getting their lifelong dues.
Instead of a bonus for civil servants as announced on certain occasions in the past, it would be much more appropriate for the financial reward to be paid to the thousands of frontliners now battling Covid-19, if the Ministry of Finance could afford it.
They more than deserve it.
The pandemic that’s been taking a heavy mental, physical and psychological toll on the healthcare frontliners is also having a severe impact on the police.
A shocking 10,000 police personnel are now under quarantine, with over 200 testing positive for Covid-19 and undergoing treatment.
It is now even more imperative for everyone to do their utmost to comply strictly with the standard operating procedures to keep the virus at bay.
Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has strongly advised against the holding of elections for now given the sharp spike in new infections after the Sabah election.
We must learn from the Sabah election held on Sept 26, self-inflicted by the bickering politicians, that became the starting point of the current pandemic wave in the state and the rest of the country.
“We have learned from Sabah. We hope not to repeat the consequences of having the election in other states,” Dr Noor Hisham said.
This advice is especially relevant to Sarawak where election must be held before August but there is plenty of speculation that the state government might decide to call for polls soon.
As a Sarawakian, I take the liberty here to say this: DON’T.
Let’s only have it just before the state government’s mandate expires. By that time, the much-talked about vaccine to flatten the curve of Covid-19 is expected to be in place.
This is not the time to take chances.