By Ashwin Kumar
TOWARDS the end of 2019, Malaysia was beset by several health issues and though some of them were not new — such as the continued increase in noncommunicable diseases — a few had made headlines and captured public attention.
Polio had made a comeback in East Malaysia after it was eradicated in the country in year 2000. The return of this vaccine-preventable disease raised the question of making vaccination compulsory.
The world was then struck by the onslaught of Covid-19. One by one, countries were hit, and Malaysia was no different. Selangor, in particular, started to struggle with an increasing number of infections.
Having helmed the health portfolio of the state for the past year, Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud’s priority has always been to provide the best health care for the people of Selangor.
When the State Health, Welfare, Women Empowerment and Family Committee chairman took over the portfolio in May 2018, she armed herself with all the knowledge she could get about health matters in Selangor and got to work immediately, informing people about the initiatives introduced by the administration.
Some of the initiatives close to her heart are the Selangor Health Scheme, the Selangor Health Aid, tuberculosis and mental health incentives, as well as the civil servants’ healthcare scheme.
“Health is one of the four core areas that the Selangor government focused on when drafting the 2020 state budget. Other areas are education, economy and safety,” she told Selangor Journal in an exclusive interview recently.
Dr Siti Mariah said a total of RM58.5 million was allocated for health matters in the state. From that total, RM5 million was set aside for dengue prevention and containment, RM2 million to provide incentives for tuberculosis patients, RM1.5 million for the setting up of the civil servants’ healthcare scheme, and RM1 million for mental health issues. The rest of the allocation went into financing the Selangor Health Scheme and the Selangor Health Aid.
Keeping an eye on dengue
While the state administration’s attention has been focused on fighting the Covid-19 outbreak, Dr Siti Mariah warns of the looming risk of dengue due to the warm and wet spell experienced nationwide.
She expressed concern that the dangers of dengue are easily overlooked due to the ongoing threat of the novel coronavirus.
“We should continuously be vigilant as dengue cases may spike at any time. This year alone, Selangor recorded 24,112 dengue-related cases and 27 deaths between January and May 2,” she said.
Dr Siti Mariah said the state administration has begun to use Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes to biologically control the spread of dengue in persistent hotspots in Selangor.
Wolbachia is a naturally-occurring bacteria that does not pose any danger to humans, animals or the environment. When male Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes mate with female Aedes mosquitoes, they will produce eggs that will not hatch. This brings the population of Aedes mosquitoes down.
“The project has been initiated in several localities in Selangor. The study of local efficacy and response has yet to be released by the Health Ministry,” she said.
When the Selangor Task Force for Covid-19 (STFC) was formed by the state administration to monitor and control the virus, Dr Siti Mariah was a natural choice to be one of its members.
“Since I have been tasked to handle the health portfolio, I had to understand the availability of resources in the state and act accordingly. I have to, on a daily basis, analyse what can and cannot be done by the state administration as the Selangor government has its own limitations.”
Dr Siti Mariah said her job is to translate every idea into a proposal for Selangor Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Amirudin Shari, and then transform the proposals into action plans.
“I have to liaise with the other STFC members and the state administration. We (the STFC) have to convince the MB before deciding on the best action to be taken for the people of Selangor.”
When asked about the appointment of former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad to head the task force, Dr Siti Mariah said it is a deserving one.
“He (Dzulkefly) was the first minister to tackle the pandemic when it hit our country and he did a great job. With his experience and exposure, I would say he is the best person to help Selangor at this point in time.”
Braving the new world order
Like the rest of the world, Malaysia has begun to adopt a “new normal,” balancing between the need to restart the economy and the health and safety of the people.
Dr Siti Mariah opined that this means the Malaysian people have to change their routines and adapt to measures that will prevent the infection of Covid-19, especially when the conditional movement control order is lifted.
“There will be new ways for people to carry on with their lives. The absence of a control order does not mean social distancing is a thing of the past as it still applies even if we have flattened the curve. People must realise that they have to do things differently after this, especially habits related to health.”
Dr Siti Mariah said the people are responsible for their own health but that health is also a collective responsibility.
“Members of the public need to make adjustments, such as wearing masks in public places, and go about their lives differently, be it how they pray, play or socialise. Religious services and ceremonies, which have been one of the primary drivers of the second wave of Covid-19 cases and responsible for several clusters in Malaysia, have to undergo their own evolution,” she said.
Dr Siti Mariah acknowledged that some of the industries would find it hard to adapt to a world ruled by Covid-19, but for others able and willing to make the change, new opportunities await them.
“We have to adapt, adjust and accommodate the new norms into our lives,” she added.