COVID-19 from the perspective of Health, Safety and Environment

Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho

Malaysia has not been spared from the COVID-19 outbreak threatening the world as it was a challenge detecting it at the onset due to the absence of symptoms among the populace and the manifestation of only subtle symptoms similar to flu or influenza among infected individuals. The quick spread of COVID-19 prompted the Malaysian government to start implementing the Movement Control Order on 18 March 2020 during which the entire country entered a partial lockdown.

The Movement Control Order necessitated the closure of public and private learning institutions at all levels and only essential services related to water, electricity, energy, food, telecommunications and transportation on their campuses are permitted to remain operational.

Prior to the partial lockdown, universities were in a frenzy preparing teaching and learning plans, ensuring course materials and lectures were available online, and rolling out online classes and tutorials on various online platforms – all on very short notice.

Amidst all this activity, and the obvious signs of an escalation of COVID-19 and an imminent Movement Control Order, I was approached by a student pursuing his first semester of the health, safety and environment (HSE) degree about the roles professionals in this area can play during this crisis.

I was immediately struck by two contradictory thoughts. The first was that it might be premature for him to be thinking about what he could do as a future HSE professional. The second was how amazing it was for him to be already thinking about how to contribute to the well-being of others during a pandemic. I stayed silent for a while, partly embarrassed by the first thought, but mostly thinking of how I was going to answer his question.

It then dawned on me to show him the course structure for the explanation. I told him that Curtin’s Bachelor of Science in HSE is unique in the sense that it is not only equipping students with crucial facets of the environment and occupational safety but also elements of health science, including public health.

I added that the biostatistics and epidemiology units embedded in the degree provide a good understanding of the prevalence, transmission and possible controls of infectious diseases, including coronaviruses like COVID-19. Coupled with the statistical skills imparted, he will be able to analyse the epidemiological characteristics of such viruses scientifically, which will contribute to better containment and control of outbreaks.

After making that statement, I paused momentarily whilst I browsed the course structure for more ideas. Thankfully, I was able to spot a few more units which supported my illustration.

I continued that there are a few units related to health practices which enable students to develop the ability to understand and evaluate health practices during outbreaks, thus helping to reduce the probability of infection among frontline medical personnel and those in supporting health services such as pharmacy, dentistry and elderly care. The knowledge of health practices would also allow HSE students to identify and promote the right health practices among the public to lower chances of infection.

There was one unit on promoting mental health and social inclusion that really struck me. I went on to share about the stress that many academics, myself included, are facing due to the sudden changes in the modes of teaching. Many people fail to understand the mental stress academics face in their efforts to continue providing quality education under movement control.

I also said that having experienced the outbreak and stresses of movement control and social distancing themselves, HSE students would be able to relate very well to this unit. The unit enables them to comprehend mental health from multiple perspectives, engage in the promotion of mental health in various settings, and contribute to mental health through social inclusion even when a partial lockdown is in place.

When it seemed like I was coming to the end of my list, a few more units of interest cropped up. I quickly moved my finger up to a unit called ‘Emergency Management and Incident Investigation’. I told the student that emergency management is pivotal in the current crisis, from how the government responded to the escalating outbreak and determined the preventive measures needed to curb it, to institutional-level responses such as what preventive measures businesses can take and how they should react if there is suspected infection among their employees.

Besides, emergency management should be dynamic, constantly changing to suit the progression of an emergency, such as the gradual upscaling of the Movement Control Order to encourage social distancing and flatten the infection curve.

I ended our conversation by telling the student that any entities still operating during an outbreak pose a risk of infection to their workers. This is where occupational safety comes in to ensure the risk of infection has been soundly evaluated and adequate control measures implemented to optimise safety in the workplace. It is the duty of employers to ensure the safety of employees at work as far as is practicable, whilst it is the duty of the employees to keep themselves as well as people around them safe.

I also added that the environmental aspect of the course will allow him to be more in tune with the changes in the environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the lockdown has resulted in less air and water pollution but increased waste generation due to increased use of packaging materials.

With well-rounded knowledge and skills acquired from the programme, I believe our HSE students will go on to make a very positive impact on society.

Dr. Daniel Tang Kuok Ho is the coordinator of the Bachelor of Science in Health, Safety and Environment programme at Curtin Malaysia. The Bachelor of Science in Health, Safety and Environment is a 3-year science programme accredited by the Safety Institute of Australia and Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, United Kingdom, and is recognised by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).