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The Spring When COVID-19 Came

Reflections on the deadliest pandemic in modern history

In the WittyLeaks series, Diplomac&Trade regularly publishes the personal accounts of ambassadors and other diplomatic mission leaders accredited to Budapest. This time, the Malaysian Ambassador shares his thoughts of living through periods of epidemic.

The rapid and sudden global spread of the novel coronavirus, the cause of the COVID-19 disease, has been disruptive and played topsy-turvy to our daily lives. The unprecedented scale of economic and social devastation of this deadly pandemic will indeed change dramatically the way societies live and interact. Globalization has been blamed for the rapid spread of this virus. Due to globalization and technological advancement, the world has become ‘smaller’ and ‘closer’ where people from the opposite ends of the world can travel easily and interact with each other with few barriers.
Within a short span of time, COVID-19 has blazed through ferociously like a raging wildfire across the globe; leaving behind a trail of extreme devastation. In its fiery path, it did not discriminate the stature of power, wealth and development of a nation. Almost every nation was brought to its knees by the pandemic.

No more handshakes
As cities around the world began to shut down and respective governments devised their own remedies to break the chain of transmission, all forms of gathering, be it for sports, religious and social were banned and people were made to isolate themselves from others. Hence, a new normal emerged and everyone had to get accustomed to it. Quarantines, lockdowns and ‘work-from-home’ (WFM) became a common and universal buzzwords during the pandemic. People everywhere were told to frequently wash or sanitize their hands; engage in social distancing; stop shaking hands and to put on the surgical face masks when they step out of their homes.
For many, enduring those measures of isolation and seclusion had a scarring impact. Some even remember it as traumatic. Inevitably, the entire experience has created fear and suspicion among friends, colleagues and family members, as everyone now is a potential carrier of the deadly contagious virus.

Saving Malaysians…
At the level of my Embassy in Budapest, due to travel lockdowns that have been imposed to contain the pandemic, we were expected to reach out and assist our nationals that may have gotten themselves stranded in the countries under our purview, namely Hungary, Slovenia and North Macedonia.
At the height of the global travel lockdowns, Malaysia had more than 20,000 of its nationals, stranded in over 70 countries. Through close coordination and collaboration between the COVID-19 Task Force of the Malaysian Foreign Ministry with the Malaysian Missions around the world, over 70% of the Malaysians stranded abroad were successfully repatriated to Malaysia, by the end of May.
In the case of our Embassy in Budapest, we were fortunate not to encounter serious stranded cases in Hungary since foreigners were still allowed to fly out of the country if they had valid tickets and there were still available flights.
We had only a case of two Malaysian tourists who got stranded in Ljubljana after Slovenia adopted a full lockdown by shutting down its airports and completely sealing its border. With no other options but to stay put in Ljubljana for three weeks, the Embassy eventually managed to obtain permission for the two Malaysians to cross into Croatia and fly back to Malaysia on a Qatar Airways flight from Zagreb International Airport.

Recalling Ebola and the H1N1 Swine Flu…
When it was announced that the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was detected in Budapest, I had a sense of déja vu. I had to deal with similar pandemics at my last two postings, namely, in Accra, Ghana during the 2014-2016 West African Ebola epidemic and in Hong Kong SAR during the 2009 H1N1 Flu Pandemic. Though the previous ones were on a smaller scale than COVID-19, the SOP and measures seemed alike. First on the list would be to secure and make safe our homes and workplace. This entails a rigorous and tedious ‘ritual’ of disinfecting the public area of the office, after each guest or visitor; the frequent washing and sanitizing of our hands; the suffocating feeling of wearing a face mask; and the awkwardness of social distancing.
In hindsight, the Ebola virus which severely affected countries in the West Africa region, is normally spread through bodily fluids like sweat and blood during the last stages of the disease. Ebola is often considered as a gruesome disease because once the virus gets in the body, it attacks the cells that line the blood vessels, causing internal organs throughout the body, to bleed. And once it reaches the lungs, sufferers may drown in their own blood. By comparison, Ebola is far more deadly than COVID-19. According to the WHO, the average fatality rate for people who contract the Ebola virus is around 50%. However, COVID-19 is more contagious than Ebola and far more sinister because its symptoms can be less apparent.
In the case of the H1N1 (2009) flu, which is commonly called the swine flu, the 2009 pandemic afflicted close to 395,000 people in Asia with about 2,140 deaths. South Korea had the most confirmed cases, followed by China, Hong Kong SAR and Thailand. Fortunately for mankind, a H1N1 vaccine became available in December 2009. I still recall vividly the first confirmed H1N1 case in Hong Kong was of a foreigner who had developed a fever after arriving in Hong Kong. The hotel where he stayed, the Metropark Hotel in Wanchai, was just a block away from the Malaysian Consulate General Office. When over 300 of the hotel’s guests and staff were quarantined for seven days by the authorities, the site suddenly became a popular photo spot for many locals and tourists, and soon after that, an encampment for almost all of the island’s TV stations and media.

How things will never be the same…
The COVID-19 disease will be remembered as one of the most destructive global pandemics of this century. The worst of it will eventually pass but the experiences endured will impact our lives, perceptions and actions for years to come.
Combating this deadly and invisible enemy, and the scale of its devastating aftermath has been likened to surviving World War III. Daily death tolls; shortages of food items and essential supplies, and the threat of a looming global recession, are some of the scenarios that have evoked the feeling of being in a state of war.
The ‘stay-home order’, ‘curfew’, or ‘lockdown’ have certainly given us the ample of time to ponder and wonder on the life that awaits us, after COVID-19. When this pandemic ends, I believe we may never get back the vibrant and active diplomatic life in Budapest that we used to relish. With the current reality, things will never be the same. In this regard, let us positively embrace the changes before us and not take anything for granted.

The Ambassador of Malaysia, Cheong Loon Lai

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