Hard lockdown. Soft lockdown. No interstate travel allowed. Inter-district travel allowed. Pools and parks open, then closed. No more than one to a car, then two. Restaurants at 50 per cent capacity. Mask-wearing compulsory. Small family gatherings okay. Open for domestic tourism, but quarantine for returning visitors.
In countries like Malaysia where strict measures have been taken to try to contain Covid-19, there have been so many iterations of the rules since the pandemic started in 2020, with spells of opening up alternating with the return of restrictions as a new variant emerges, that we have become used to incremental changes. Initial outrage at disruption to daily routines – what do you mean the condo’s gym is shut indefinitely? – gave way to reluctant compliance. Buffeted by the regulations we had to admit were there to protect us from a virus that has killed millions globally, it has been easy to lose sight of just how dramatically our lives changed.
Next month not only marks the beginning of Ramadan, significant in itself: but also for Malaysia 1st April will be when the country’s borders finally fully reopen for vaccinated travellers. Just over two years after we found ourselves under a very tough “Movement Control Order” with 36 hours’ notice, it set me thinking about the enormity and strangeness of this time.
At first it felt unbearably claustrophobic. I’d managed to buy a $30 step machine the night before the lockdown started – and it was the best 30 bucks I ever paid, since we were essentially confined inside for months. The police told security guards to stop residents walking around in their own car parks. One person per household could leave home to buy essential groceries, and that was it.
In many countries this whole period, with all its variations about what we could or could not do, will soon be in the past; although it is remarkable to consider that my seven-year-old son will have spent nearly one third of his life under the shrunken horizon and with the minimised personal contact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Normal life cannot return for the huge numbers who have lost jobs, businesses, or loved ones. Their trauma will remain. It cannot be alleviated by the lifting of restrictions that will inevitably accompany accepting that the virus is now endemic.
In other ways, however, even those who have been far more fortunate have lost something. Home schooling – problematic for so many reasons – is one of the most obvious examples. Two of my former colleagues at the country’s national think tank, Calvin Cheng and Harris Zainul, recently wrote that “Asian Development Bank estimates suggest "learning losses" for Malaysia’s children from the shift to remote learning are among the highest in Asia”.
And for everyone, as of March 18, 2020, so many of the ceremonies and rituals that signpost our lives disappeared overnight. After Ramadan comes Eid Al Fitr, or Hari Raya Aidilfitri as we call the feast in Malaysia, and it is hard to overstate what a celebration it is here. For a whole month, families, officials and even workplaces hold “open houses” to which members of all faiths are invited.
Although people dress in brand new “baju Melayu”, traditional Malay attire, they are relaxed and festive gatherings. Attendees try not to over-indulge in the vast arrays of local cuisine laid out – not least as many will go to two, three or even four open houses on the same day.
When I worked at the national think tank, one year the open house in the gardens of our colonial-era bungalow featured a bouncy castle. My younger son, who loved it, presumed it was a permanent fixture, possibly for the children of staff, or even for furrow-browed economists and security analysts to blow off steam on in between penning serious policy papers.
But there has been none of that for the last two years, just as we have experienced no repeat of witnessing an old friend’s residence fill up with well-wishers the day after he died, when all three of Malaysia’s then current and former prime ministers came to pay their respects, to offer prayers and share reminiscences.
Family members have died during this time, but even when there were small gatherings, those who lived in close proximity to elderly relatives like us had to restrict their movements for fear of passing on the virus to the vulnerable. Other regular fixtures, such as meeting two other families to swim and eat at a beautiful golf course in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur’s Twin Towers every Sunday morning, ceased abruptly as well.
These rites and habits will return. At the same time, things have changed irrevocably. Economies and businesses have been severely affected. Many firms or favourite restaurants have gone under.
Bigger picture: will the rest of the world forget how the West hoarded vaccines and found time to be hugely sympathetic to Ukrainian refugees, but not to those from the Middle East? How easily humanitarian catastrophes in Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Myanmar have been pushed to the margins of the western-dominated international media when it is a European country that faces disaster.
For one thing two years of the pandemic has shone a light on is the fact that we are not "all in this together" – not when after all this time a mere 15 per cent of the adult population in Africa has been fully vaccinated.
If, as some suggest, the crisis in Ukraine is likely to lead to a reshaping of the international order, this is something that must be born in mind. Building back will only be better if it means a new global equity, in which a life in Kabul is not deemed to be worth less than one in Kyiv.