Taman Desa residents cry foul over association’s Covid-19 hotline, fear patients could be stigmatised
The letter by the Taman Desa Residents’ Association was endorsed by the Brickfields police station and contained general guidelines, but the section for Covid-19 persons under surveillance has led to concerns that it could be used to expose the identities of others without their consent. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 — Residents of Taman Desa here have expressed concern that the Covid-19 hotline set up by their residents’ association could lead to the exposure of patients’ private medical information.

In recent days, red bunting banners have appeared around Taman Desa offering assistance to those affected by the virus.

Malay Mail also sighted a letter by the Taman Desa Residents’ Association (TDRA) that has caused some alarm.

Although the letter was endorsed by the Brickfields police station and contained general guidelines, the section for Covid-19 persons under surveillance (PUS) has led to concerns that it could be used to expose the identities of others without their consent.

Long-time resident M. Selvam, 64, said he is concerned that the hotline can end up naming and shaming patients or PUS.

“My question is whether the TDRA has been authorised by the Health Ministry or National Security Council (NSC) to do so. I can understand that the RA has the goal of bringing everyone together, but that involves feedback and community involvement rather than this.

“To my knowledge, none of us were informed. They should have asked us and then drafted their plans from there. Without such consultation I am worried things might spin out of control when people name and shame,” he said.

He cited a recent incident last week where a Covid-19 case occurred in one of Taman Desa’s oldest condominiums.

Despite pressure and demands from its residents to know which household had been infected, Selvam said the condominium’s community management refused to budge.

“Also, did the RA consult the right authorities to begin with? Why did they go to the police seeing as how they are not the authority, merely enforcers of the law? They were not the right ones to sanction this in the first place,” Selvam said.

Another 55-year-old long-time resident, speaking anonymously, said the RA likely has good intentions but should not have overstepped.

“It is a matter of ethics and morality as human beings. The country is going through a pandemic but this is inappropriate as we are not professionals. This should have been left to the authorities.

“It is a form of whistleblowing which brings about animosity among Taman Desa’s residents. To a certain extent, you can be seen as inciting fear and rumour-mongering, which will create disharmony,” he said.

The resident said that he spotted several posts in Taman Desa’s community group on Facebook last week, where members shared photographs and addresses of residences where Covid-19 occurred, adding that they were taken down afterwards.

“This is a form of social policing by the RA. Rightfully the public should be contacting the ministry hotline or other appropriate authorities. What right does the RA have in this?

“I believe I speak for a good portion of the residents, many of whom are also uncomfortable with this. Like I said, good intentions but the end result is public shaming,” he said.

Instead the resident suggested that the RA would be better off encouraging those visiting Taman Desa’s adjacent commercial areas to observe the standard operating procedures, as a starting point.

However, TDRA chairman Wong Chan Choy clarified that the hotline was not meant to name the Covid-19 patients but to allow the surrounding community to assist if needed.

“It is like this, when we are informed through the hotline of a house where Covid-19 was detected, the ones left are those who are tested negative while the positive occupants are taken away for treatment.

“Our main intention is to offer to sanitise the house, or to help its occupants buy groceries, necessities or medical items, while they remain indoors for the 10-day quarantine rather than go out and about while unwittingly or unknowingly spreading the virus,” he said.

Those who call the hotline are usually nearby neighbours worried at the sight of ambulances on the road outside. Wong said the initiative was also to aid the authorities.

“We thought to ourselves, why don’t we do this to alleviate their burden. That is why when we spoke to the Brickfields police station and explained in detail, they considered it to be a good grassroots plan and gave their endorsement.

“Bear in mind that most of the calls made to us are about foreign workers who live in the tens, side by side inside the houses. We felt sorry for their state and are aware they may not have much money, so we decided to help,” he said.

Several of the surrounding shops and businesses also decided to donate goods to the RA when they heard of its efforts.

When asked about the posts on Facebook, Wong acknowledged it is not easy to keep people’s fear in check and not trigger panic, adding the RA is swift to deal with such instances whenever they appear, should they spin out of control.

“As chairman I want to keep things as calm and orderly as much as possible. For me and the rest of the RA, we are just doing our part as responsible Malaysians,” he said.

TDRA committee member Francis Tan said the move was initially for foreign workers to contact landlords or employers.

“Despite our efforts, many did not respond after a while or outright ignored us. Even worse, some are aware Covid-19 has broken out among their employees but paid no mind.

“This is why we had to rely on neighbouring houses to inform us. Keeping those exposed to Covid-19 patients in one place instead of wandering around is crucial, as the safety of one is the safety of all,” he said.

When contacted, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah agreed that the possibility of making the identity of those who contract Covid-19 publicly known is not ethical.

“This is why we refused to share details, to avoid stigmatisation and to protect the patient,” he told Malay Mail.

Dr Noor Hisham added that disclosing a patient’s private and confidential information to the wider public could violate the Medical Act 1971.

When contacted, Malaysian Medical Association president Datuk Dr M. Subramaniam said the RA’s move was well-intentioned but still required extreme care to avoid violating the rights of residents infected.

“The issue of privacy ethics must always be kept in mind. Rather than one’s neighbours, it should be the members of the affected household themselves who contact the hotline asking for help.

“Otherwise it is infringing on their privacy if others do it. Certainly it is important for those who test negative to remain indoors, especially since our hospital beds are overflowing and the quarantine centres are also under heavy burden,” he said to Malay Mail.