KUALA LUMPUR, July 29 — PKR’s health spokesman Dr Lee Boon Chye has raised the strong possibility that Covid-19 could be an endemic illness in Malaysia like other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV, measles, and dengue.
The former deputy health minister said people must be prepared to adopt new norms of behaviour to prevent a third or subsequent waves of the novel coronavirus, even as daily Covid-19 cases have started rising in recent weeks, particularly in Sarawak.
“We must accept the fact that infection clusters will continue to occur and if we are prepared, the clusters will be contained and not grow into an uncontrollable outbreak,” Dr Lee said in his debate on the King’s Speech in Parliament yesterday.
He stressed that the most important factor in preventing future Covid-19 waves was the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) capacity to control outbreaks, including sufficient and accurate tests with quick results, sufficient public health staff for contact tracing, and the use of digital contact tracing apps like the Selangor state government’s SELangkah and federal government’s MySejahtera.
“My question is — how far has MySejahtera been accepted as of now?” Dr Lee said.
He urged the government to increase funding and positions in public health under MOH, noting that only RM5.66 billion out of MOH’s RM27.9 billion operating budget under Budget 2020 was allocated to public health, compared to the budget for medical treatment that was 2.5 times larger at RM14.2 billion.
In terms of positions, Dr Lee noted that MOH’s public health sector employs 78,266 staff, compared to its medical programme that is almost twice the size with 153,412 staff.
“This shows that MOH’s budget is more focused on treatment than prevention; this trend has to change.”
As public health includes primary care, family health, nutrition, health education, and control of infectious diseases like dengue, tuberculosis, measles, polio, and HIV, Dr Lee said more funding and job positions must be allocated to public health with the additional Covid-19 burden.
Dr Lee also said Malaysia’s 124 official Covid-19 deaths, out of 8,943 confirmed coronavirus cases, did not reflect the true impact of Covid-19 on people’s health.
“This is because the pandemic has placed pressure on existing health service delivery infrastructure. The indirect impact includes the treatment of other diseases like cancer and heart disease that were cancelled or deferred throughout and after the MCO (Movement Control Order),” the Gopeng MP said.
“The indirect impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on health can be measured by taking into account excess deaths caused by non-Covid-19 diseases throughout the pandemic.”
He cited BBC research that found excess mortality in the United Kingdom comprised a quarter of all Covid-19 deaths, which means that even though the coronavirus killed 46,000 people, other illnesses caused an extra 11,500 deaths.
“Have MOH services, aside from Covid-19, resumed 100 per cent function, and did all-cause mortality rise in the first six months of 2020 throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?” Dr Lee questioned. All-cause mortality refers to all deaths occurring in a population, regardless of the cause.
A Universiti Malaya public health medicine specialist said last May that 461 more deaths occurred among those aged 60 and older from January till March 10 this year, compared to the average mortality in this age group in the same period in the years 2017 to 2019.
Dr Lee welcomed the government’s move to compel the wearing of face coverings in public places from August 1, but stressed that the regulation must be clear and easy to follow, such as specifying the places where people are required to wear face masks.
He suggested that the government give free reusable face masks to 5.4 million students in preschool, primary, and secondary schools by this Saturday.
Dr Lee further raised questions on other health issues, such as the promotion of contract medical officers from UD41 to the UD43 grade of their permanent counterparts, which the-then Pakatan Harapan administration had promised last November, and contract government doctors’ difficulty in continuing specialist training through the Hadiah Latihan Persekutuan scholarship.
The former deputy health minister also questioned MOH on the status of the RM60 million pneumococcal vaccination programme, as well as the status of the polio outbreak in Sabah that saw four reported cases until March 8 this year.