MARCH 26 ― The extension of the movement control order (MCO) until April 14, 2020 was a necessary and proportional step by the government to contain the unabated spread of the Covid-19 virus. The national effort must now shift from only focusing on health risks, to also ensuring food security. Therefore, the government must urgently address its existing restrictions on the supply chain of goods to ensure Malaysians have enough food supply over a prolonged period of time. It is crucial for all Malaysians, especially the most vulnerable like the poor, sick or elderly.
There are already signs that the MCO has affected food supply chains, for example with hundreds of tonnes of vegetables in Cameron Highlands being dumped because of movement restrictions and anecdotal reports of food manufacturing companies shutting down temporarily. These reports are inconsistent with the government’s assurances that food supplies will remain unaffected.
These have arisen as unintended consequences of government regulations. On March 19, the FAQs released by MITI stated that only companies manufacturing essential goods would be permitted to carry on their operations. Any essential goods companies wanting to continue operations during the MCO must reduce their number of employees by at least 50 per cent, alongside other hygiene requirements to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus.
Two days later, another statement issued by MITI confirmed that logistics and transport services providers are only permitted to deliver essential goods (intended for domestic consumption and not for export) produced by these approved manufacturing companies. And on March 23, it was made known that companies engaged in the food supply chain (and e-commerce and personal care businesses) would need to obtain certification from the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs before being allowed to operate.
These requirements are confusing and excessively bureaucratic during a time of national crisis as they could create unnecessary hurdles in the supply chain of goods and services. The task force announced on March 24 consisting of MITI, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries is a welcome move. The task force’s first job should be to coordinate and then relax these measures before they impact the food supply chain, which is a matter of basic survival for Malaysians during the Covid-19 crisis.
There are several reasons. First, numerous companies are struggling to comprehend the requirements and obtain the necessary approvals to continue operations. It is understood from personal reports that the MITI portal did not function on Saturday, March 21, leaving approvals pending. E-mails and messages were also left unanswered. The requirements from different ministries overlap and there is poor communication from the government. There must be a better way for companies to get the clarity they seek during the MCO.
That clarity is important for a second reason, as the supply chain is deeply integrated in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish between “essential” and “non-essential”. For instance, the supply of chickens is listed as an essential good. However, there are small firms that produce screws that are used to put together chicken incubators ― would these be listed as essential goods, factories of which would then be given permission to continue operations? As the MCO progresses, the government must increasingly disentangle the causalities and connections.
This is just one example of many others in maintaining the food supply chain. Are these local manufacturers expected to justify their relevance to the “essential goods” industries to the government during this time? On what grounds would a civil servant be able to make a judgment call, especially now that even government operations are operating at below full capacity given the MCO? Food factories require the entire supply chain to function, and cannot operate if raw materials, chemicals for cleaning and waste-water treatment plants stop operating.
Finally, many of the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) food producers may not be able to continue operating in the mid- to long-term on 50 per cent staffing. As it is, several supermarkets as well as food caterers have either ceased operations, or are facing shortages in their food supply.
A fluid situation with a paucity of relevant and updated information means that it is possible that the food supply chain will be broken in the coming days. Moving forward, government announcements need to be clear and consistent to avoid confusion and to allow the provision of essential medical goods to reach their required destinations to better address the growing Covid-19 crisis.
Specifically, we recommend the following seven steps be urgently taken, with appropriate consultation with food, environmental and public health specialists from the Health Ministry (MOH).
1. All food producers must remain open
The primary concern is the health and safety of workers. Food producers should remain open by providing them with easy to understand health regulations, which includes emphasis on regularly washing hands, and using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They need to be made aware of their essential role in keeping Malaysians stable and fed. Self-isolation conditions would be expected for anyone who falls sick, while keeping abreast of Malaysian government and WHO regulations. The standards departments of all food producers must observe all MOH guidelines for routine hygiene and Covid-19 precautions.
2. All transport lines should not be hindered
Local suppliers are currently unable to move produce to supermarkets or small grocery stores because transport is either unavailable or subject to police roadblocks. The police must allow food supply trucks through. A list of vehicles that are allowed to pass can be provided to the police. An online system of approvals can be quickly deployed. Spare IT capacity can be obtained by MDEC or MaGIC if necessary.
3. Steady flow of raw materials to food factories and producers
Individuals involved in the production and transportation of raw materials should be considered as essential workers. Food production should be as efficient as possible so that producers are not over-burdened. As above, additional health regulations and hand hygiene procedures should be introduced including the use of PPEs or gloves and masks. As international suppliers face delays due to their own restricted movement, food factories and producers need to establish a better relationship with local suppliers. The number and range of local suppliers must be diversified. Eligible employees should work from home.
4. Establish open dialogue between government and food suppliers
There should be open and transparent information sharing between the government and food suppliers. Rural areas can feel particularly remote and cut-off, and so farmer and fisheries cooperatives can also make real-time suggestions based on their issues. Suppliers should have a platform to inform government of their needs, which must be immediately addressed if it interferes with food production. Food suppliers such as supermarket chains, main grocers and small shops should collaborate to deliver private solutions to relieve pressure on government and encourage more efficient distribution.
5. Start a nationwide recruitment drive for people to join the local food workforce
The government can incentivise people to join the local food workforce by encouraging or providing tax incentives for companies to offer a decent wage and/or allowing students to work. If there is temporary under-employment in the tourism and hospitality industry, it can be channelled into the food industry.
6. Rely on smallholders to bolster the supply chain
Smallholders of plantations are an additional resource, and they have the added flexibility of making decisions quickly without the hierarchy of the larger agricultural companies. Smallholders should be considered an asset during this crisis. However, the government must make the process easier for smallholders, as they do not have the capacity to negotiate the cumbersome bureaucracy, paperwork or networking that large companies are more equipped to do.
7. Government to collaborate with external experts
The machinery of government is shifting towards implementation, leading to a relative lack of focus on policies, strategy-setting and predicting unintended consequences of policies. Therefore, the government should collaborate and engage food security experts in think-tanks, academia and among citizens. This network can provide surge analytical capabilities and help the government identify and manage blind spots.
We understand that public policies and implementation at this unprecedented crisis require steep trade-offs. However, we caution against unnecessary regulation that will impose a greater threat to the nation. With an MCO extension, we must avoid a food crisis on top of a health and an economic crisis. While stopping the spread of Covid-19 is the highest priority, the government must balance the risk of Covid-19 and the risk of hunger, rationing or impaired nutrition. We look forward to the task force’s announcements on ensuring the food supply chain remains unbroken throughout the MCO period.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.