KUALA LUMPUR, June 4 — Malaysia successfully controlled the number of Covid-19 patients, prepared the health care system, and empowered most of the population to curb the outbreak, an expert said.
Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman — dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya and an infectious diseases specialist — told a forum hosted by CSO Platform for Reform Tuesday that she is proud of the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially when compared to more developed countries such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK).
“Overall, I think (our country’s response) has been very good and we can be proud of it. I think certainly most countries in the region have done very, very well compared to much more developed and economically advanced countries,” said Dr Adeeba.
She added that the Covid-19 pandemic presented differently in various countries, like how Malaysia’s outbreak differed from Thailand or Vietnam.
“There’s a lot of similarities with Singapore, but overall, yes, I think we can be proud of what we have achieved thus far.”
As of yesterday, Malaysia — a population of about 32 million — recorded a total of 7,970 Covid-19 cases, with a death toll of 115. In comparison, the US with a population 10 times bigger confirmed nearly 1.9 million Covid-19 cases and 108,059 fatalities.
The UK — whose 68-million strong population is about double that of Malaysia — reported 277,985 Covid-19 cases and 39,369 victims who succumbed to the coronavirus.
Malaysia Quickly Acted After Wuhan Outbreak
When asked what is Malaysia’s “secret sauce” to successfully fighting Covid-19, Dr Adeeba touted the nation’s fast response to news of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, last January.
“I think there are several factors, the most important one being that we acted very quickly to the news of the epidemic in Wuhan, China. We started closing our borders to countries, we started defining criteria for testing patients who might be infected with Covid-19 very early and once they were diagnosed, we isolated and contact traced them way back in January,” she said.
In comparison with countries like the US and the UK, Dr Adeeba pointed out that their late response to the Covid-19 outbreak caused their struggle in trying to play catch up with the intensity of the coronavirus transmission.
“And if you compare that (to countries like) the US and the UK, (they) only started reacting in March. Even then when you speak to colleagues in the US and the UK, testing to diagnose was still extremely difficult.
“This is something that both the public and private health sectors provided very, very early on; testing was really pretty widespread,” she said.
Dr Adeeba added that although some may perceive Malaysia to be “overboard” in admitting everyone who tests positive for Covid-19 regardless if they need treatment — unlike other countries that home quarantines those with no or mild symptoms — hospitalising all positive cases could have contributed to Malaysia’s success.
“So, by diagnosing patients early and admitting them into hospitals early, and one can argue that we might have gone a little bit overboard in terms of admitting every single person into an acute care hospital.
“I think that we were able to manage the patients well and I personally think that is the ‘secret sauce’,” she told the forum.
MCO Not About Eliminating Covid-19
In terms of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Adeeba thought that the three most important lessons learned included minimising the number of Covid-19 patients, allocating enough time to prepare the health care system, and empowerment of the public.
She further emphasised that the purpose of the various Movement Control Orders (MCO) and the current Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) — which was implemented on May 4 and is set to end on June 9 — was to limit the number of Covid-19 transmissions in a short period of time, rather than to eliminate the coronavirus completely.
“The one thing that the public must remember is that the MCO, or the lockdown, or whatever you want to call it, was never about eradicating the virus completely.”Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Malaya
“I think this is a very important message for people to remember so that they will continue to take the necessary precautions for many, many months forward,” she said.
She further explained that the implementation of movement restrictions was a necessary move in flattening the country’s Covid-19 epidemiological curve, pointing out that free movement in countries like the US and the UK led to a vast number of infections that greatly overwhelmed their health care systems, as coronavirus patients there struggled with shortages in intensive care beds and ventilators.
“The whole aim of the lockdown was to flatten the curve and that was to reduce the number of people getting infected, as much as possible from getting infected at the same time as what you see in the US and the UK where you get this huge number of people getting infected at the same time because there’s free movement and ongoing transmissions. You run the risk of overwhelming the health system.
“So, that was the main aim of the lockdown — to minimise the number of people getting infected and by doing that, you allow the health system to prepare itself, you know, to get adequate number of PPE (personal protective equipment), (have) guidelines in place, to make sure we have enough ventilators, and so forth, which by large we achieved,” she explained.
The infectious disease specialist said Malaysia’s response to Covid-19 achieved what countries like the US and UK have struggled to accomplish.
The lockdown — which slowed Covid-19 transmission enough to give Malaysia time to prepare its health care system for any potential surge, albeit at an extremely high cost economically — also helped create awareness in the Malaysian population. But Dr Adeeba noted that changing people’s behaviour is an extremely difficult task.
“And in a way, although I don’t think that was the aim of the lockdown, but in a way we managed to get the message to a large number of the population that ‘hey this is serious, you need to take personal responsibility and these are the ways that the disease is transmitted and this is the way to keep yourself and your family safe’.
“And I must commend that the public health messages that you see on TV are really excellent, especially the infograms and all of that,” she said.