HAZE: Managing Another Disaster During COVID-19 - by Lt Col Dr Maimunah Omar
This year has really been a challenging year. After steadily managing COVID 19, Malaysia will soon have to face another issue-the haze. The dry season is only just starting, and the worst of the open burning is yet to come. The haze, also called the atmospheric brown cloud (ABC), contains several types of particles emanating from vehicular pollution, biomass burning and other sources. This layer of polluted air plays a critical role in the regional climate as it both absorbs and scatters the incoming solar radiation. Transboundary haze in Southeast Asia has been recorded since 1972. The haze is the result of large fires in Indonesia caused by the illegal burning of forests and peat swamps, often with the purpose of creating lands for lucrative palm oil plantations as well as for subsistence farming by local residents especially in the provinces of South Sumatra and Riau in Indonesia's Sumatra Island, and Kalimantan in the Indonesian Borneo. This thick haze not only results in the inconvenience of flight delays and school closures, but more importantly, poses a significant threat to public health.
In our current climate, the haze often coincides with the dry Southwest monsoon season from June to September. The prevailing winds then move the smoke over towards Singapore and Malaysia. Recently fire has ravaged forests in Indonesia, marking the start of the dry season and threatening to aggravate respiratory ailments amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Studies that link air pollution to higher COVID-19 mortality rates have been conducted, including one by researchers at Harvard University and another by researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University. The latter shows that in the industrialized, northern part of Italy where air pollution levels are higher, the mortality rates from COVID-19 are as high as 12%, against a 4.5% average for the rest of the country. The Harvard study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, shows a small increase in the long-term level of PM2.5-a fine particulate matter deemed harmful to human health and present in haze from forest fires-may increase COVID-19 death rates by 15%.
IMMEDIATE ACTION TO DEAL WITH HAZE–COVID SITUATION
Even though Malaysia is not currently experiencing any haze; we must stay vigilant as hotpots have been detected in Indonesia. As of 4th July 2020, it is reported that there are already 700 haze hotspots detected in Indonesia particularly in Kalimantan. Our neighboring country, Singapore has also taken several actions in preparation for this situation. Since it can be considered as double disaster, Malaysia has to be more proactive and take preventive actions as the haze issue is definitely a cause for concern for everyone as it affects the whole country in terms of people’s health, healthcare expenses, the environment and the economy what more during this COVID pandemic.
There is no doubt that our Ministry of Health (MoH) has done an excellent job throughout this pandemic season. It is suggested that the government, through Ministry of Health, to issue additional SOPs, rules and regulations to enhance the new norm despite the existing rules and regulations that we have already been practicing. The information should be shared with the public as a precautionary action. Even though MoH has produced guidance for the public in facing the haze called “The Health Advisory for Workplaces During Haze”, as mentioned earlier, this year the challenges are doubled when COVID 19 also hits, therefore it is crucial for MoH to establish an extra guidance, a set of rules and policy to help the public deal with this situation.
Next, the government should enhance the awareness over the effect of the Haze-COVID so that people will take more precautionary actions and become more alert. The awareness should include not only the dos and don’ts for the public, but also specific actions that should be taken by the teachers, students, frontlines and also the enforcement agencies who are safeguarding our borders close to our neighboring countries. As additional measures, our Government could introduce a personal guide for the public, where the level of haze in the country is updated and can be referred to, from time to time. Members of the public might wish to refer to the guide before engaging in outdoor activities such as exercising or heading to the park. For example, the current situation for haze and with the ability to read the current air quality in one hour, 4 hours, 12 hours or 24 hours, it can guide the public to plan their outdoor activities. The indicator of the haze reading could be through color or through words, such as normal, high, high risk, minimal, to avoid, prolonged and strenuous. The government can also do the updating on a daily basis as a haze forecast. The sharing and dispersing of early information before things become worst can be very helpful, as the public needs to be given an early warning and alerted, according to the level of haze or the overall situation in the country.
By now the government should be able to share as much as they can about all the information related to the haze situation even though it has yet to enter our country. At least, the government could share the status of the situation in the neighboring country, so that the nearest area in our country could be more aware and come up with their contingency plans. The social media is the best platform that can be used to spread the news about Haze-COVID so the public is in the know and can be prepared.
Another effort that we can exert is to be extra prepared and to equip our health facilities and frontlines with tools and equipment ready for the Haze-COVID situation. We have to think ahead, about the extra requirement that needs to be catered for, in case the number of cases escalates due to the situation, coupled with limited visibility. At this point too, it would be useful if some research could be done with regards to Haze-COVID symptoms and the immediate actions that need to be taken to tackle it in order to avoid it from spreading rapidly. Conventional masks, hand-washing and social distancing are essential hygiene practices in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, while these hygiene measures do not help cleanse our respiratory system off the majority of potentially infectious particles we exhale during natural breathing. Research and development could be carried out too to venture on some new but incredibly simple, safe, yet effective hygiene innovations.
In terms of the defence and security aspects, this Haze-COVID situation would definitely enable many illegal immigrants to enter our country through our borders and illegal routes or “lorong tikus”, and this will put our security forces at high risks and in danger. It could be better if they can be equipped with advanced, robust and high-capacity equipment such as a drone with the latest technology to help them monitor the border and detect any trespassing by any intruders, for example, a Drone with DRIMS (Drone Information Management Software) that provides the user with means to control the flying laboratory and log all acquired data. It also could provide both live data as well as historical data for all sensors plus the GPS position, altitude, temperature, and humidity. Users can also command the drone in terms of the time to take the sample, selecting the sampling interval, adjusting the sampling rate, and performing routine maintenance such as the calibration of sensors.
Due to limited visibility, the enforcement agencies should also impose the use of some Heat Detection or Personnel Identification items such as Thermal Imager Equipment or Night Vision Google with advanced technology which can detect any movement beyond one to two kilometers of vicinity. At present, it is uncertain whether or not we do have this equipment adequately and whether or not the technology is still relevant to be used for haze. Apart from that, as for personal need, our men also need to be equipped with an advanced First Aid toolkit and hygienist pack which includes medication that can treat haze at an early stage, while they are on duty to guard our borders in isolated locations such as deep in the jungle or somewhere on an island. They might need to be equipped with special masks like N95s compared to the normal layer mask because the mask can filter out both large and small particles or any effective hygiene product, such as nasal saline mist that can be used for nasal cleansing to reduce the risk of infection movement into and out of the lungs
To face this alarming Haze-COVID situation, every citizen in the country needs to play their parts and roles to assist the government in every aspect. This is a collective action. Regionally, even though numerous awareness campaigns have been carried out and stern actions have been taken against the irresponsible parties, open fires are still reported every year and even so, not many legal actions have been taken against those responsible. On top of that, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution does not have any clauses that allow punitive measures to be taken against irresponsible parties. There should be strong political willpower and commitment from each and every ASEAN member to collectively produce new and innovative solutions: short, medium and long term solutions to the transboundary haze issue from the political, economic, technological, scientific and behavioral aspects.