Malaysia Suffers ‘Lost Year’ On Covid-19 Anniversary

The parliamentary select committee on health, science and innovation wants an inquiry to investigate Malaysia’s Covid-19 response in the past one year.

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 25 — One year after Covid-19 first hit Malaysia, the country now faces a relentless surge of the virus, without any indication on when or how many cases the peak may see.

From three Covid-19 cases detected among Chinese nationals in Johor on January 25 last year, the novel coronavirus has now infected, officially, 183,801 people in Malaysia, killing 678.

A coffee table book titledThe Covid-19 Chronicles of Malaysia that depicted the Covid-19 public health crisis (mostly in pictures, not much data) until June 30, 2020 — published by the Institutes for Health Systems Research under the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) National Institutes of Health (NIH) — now seems to be a premature, even hubristic, document.

Far from adopting new approaches and genuine collaboration with the private sector, civil society, state administrations, and even ordinary citizens, the Malaysian government, over the past one year, acted as if they could defeat a dangerous new virus all on their own. They failed.

Malaysians are getting increasingly desperate, as condominium management bodies force residents to get tested for Covid-19, enforcers are physically attacked, and ill people who test positive allegedly lie about breaking self-isolation to go viral online and get care from MOH.

“Unfortunately, we’re not in a good place at the moment with surging infections in many parts of the country. We seem to be rushing through new policies and strategies with little run-up time,” former Health deputy director-general Dr Christopher Lee told CodeBlue.

“We have to take stock of why we’re where we are now. We need to review what we have done well but more importantly where we need to do better. We need to really walk the talk of ‘whole of government and whole of society’ approach. We certainly need more meaningful involvement of sectors beyond the Ministry of Health,” added the infectious disease expert.

Dr. Christopher Lee, Deputy Director General of Health, Malaysia

Malaysia’s average daily Covid-19 cases have multiplied by 7.6 times to 3,415 daily cases in the fortnight of January 11 to 24, from 451 daily cases in the fortnight of October 1 to 14.

CodeBlue reported that Malaysia has the 20th highest rate of increase in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases globally, with total infections doubling in 38 days, higher than all ASEAN nations except for Thailand.

What has gone wrong with Malaysia’s public health measures when the government claimed that Covid-19 was nearly suppressed for three months in June, July and August? From May until mid-September last year, daily Covid-19 infections in the country were below 100, mostly under 50, and even occasionally hitting zero cases.

“Sometimes, success breeds complacency, and maybe because of that we weren’t fully prepared for what is to come,” Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii, who chairs the parliamentary select committee (PSC) on health, science and innovation, told CodeBlue.

Now, Covid-19 has spread across the country. Sabah’s outbreak, which began last September, has still yet to subside, registering hundreds of infections daily. The coronavirus has also started to infect rural communities in Sarawak, with cases reported in the past fortnight in 28 of 40 districts in the country’s largest state. The Klang Valley, meanwhile, recorded 1,361 Covid-19 cases daily on average in the past two weeks.

While the third wave of the epidemic has been attributed to the Sabah election last September 26 — a super-spreader event that contributed 94 per cent of Malaysia’s 183,801 confirmed Covid-19 cases — the virus could have been spreading silently for months during an illusory lull prior.

Paediatrician Dr Amar-Singh HSS had noted that 30 per cent of local transmissions nationwide from July 25 to August 24 were unlinked, or sporadic infections, suggesting community transmission.

PSC Wants Inquiry Into Covid-19 Response

Bandar Kuching MP Dr Kelvin Yii. Picture by Boo Su-Lyn.

The head of the PSC on health, science and innovation called for an inquiry by experts from the public and private sector to investigate Malaysia’s Covid-19 response in the past one year, which can be held by or outside the PSC.

“I believe such an inquiry can be held simultaneously while we’re battling Covid. Aim is just to find out the mistakes or gaps in our public health response and fix them for our ongoing response that is likely to last until 2023, even with the arrival of the vaccine,” Dr Yii told CodeBlue.

“This includes ways to better improve data transparency, mobilisation of all stakeholders, decentralisation of approach especially to the state government. This will help to increase capacity of testing, speed of contact tracing and also isolation capabilities.

“This inquiry must also look into gaps in protecting and taking care of the welfare of our health care workers and what will be the best approach moving forward.”

After several politicians tested positive for Covid-19 during the Sabah state election, MOH made all Sabah returnees undergo mandatory Covid-19 testing, but did not impose compulsory quarantine for 14 days, as home surveillance orders were lifted when individuals tested negative on their first test.

This has been a clear failure of Malaysia’s public health response as more returnees from Sabah, where most of the districts were red zones, sparked new Covid-19 clusters in the Klang Valley.

Unlike the beginning of the third wave when a high number of Covid-19 cases were recorded in Sabah, since the end of November, a major proportion of the country’s infections were reported in the Klang Valley.

However, Malaysia once again committed another blunder by lifting interstate travel restrictions from December 7, which paved the way for Malaysians to travel for holidays nationwide. From December 23 to January 5, during year-end holidays, MOH reported 1,818 coronavirus cases a day on average.

“Last year was a lost year.”

Petaling Jaya resident Ms Yong who contracted Covid-19

Yong, a 49-year-old woman, and her five family members all contracted Covid-19 earlier this year; she underwent misery to protect her family from coronavirus infection, as none of them received calls from MOH after they tested positive. Yong only managed to get her elderly parents-in-law admitted to Sungai Buloh Hospital with a private ambulance service.

“We have lost humane aspects, political trust in this one year,” Yong told CodeBlue.

Busy politicians, who were focusing more on retaining their political power, failed to adhere to Covid-safe standard operating procedures (SOPs) as well. That triggered anger among the people when ordinary citizens were imposed fines, but political leaders walked freely for the same offence.

“If the minister who preaches daily on television about the nation’s pandemic situation is ‘cakap tak serupa bikin’ and the head of the health care services practices double standards and bows to the whims and fancies of the politicians, then the nation will perpetually remain at the mercy of the coronavirus and will be continually trapped in a vicious cycle of MCOs (Movement Control Orders),” paediatrician Dr Musa Mohd Nordin said.

Consultant paediatrician Dr Musa Mohd Nordin. Picture from Dr Musa Mohd Nordin’s Facebook page.

Malaysia’s positive rate for Covid-19 tests has exceeded the World Health Organization’s (WHO) maximum target of five per cent since November 6, depicting the possibility that more people infected with coronavirus in the community haven’t been tested. More than nine of 10 active Covid-19 clusters as of January 10 had a positive rate above five per cent.

The brand new year slammed Malaysians by registering breaking daily records of Covid-19 cases in January 2021, reaching 4,275 new cases on January 23. Previous records were 3,309 new cases on January 12, followed by 3,347 infections on January 14, and 4,029 cases on January 16.

The first 23 days of 2021 recorded almost 30 per cent of the total Covid-19 deaths that have been reported so far. As of January 23, Malaysia recorded a total of 667 Covid-19 deaths, with 196 fatalities in less than a month. Severe Covid-19 cases have increased to 15 per cent of daily infections.

Second Nationwide MCO, No Projections Of Impact

Malaysia once again has imposed a nationwide MCO, with the possibility of a complete economic shutdown from February 4 if the Covid-19 infection rate continues rising, according to a leaked memo from the EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Yet, MOH has not publicly given projections on how many Covid-19 cases are expected to be reduced with the MCO 2.0 that was enforced since January 13. Unlike China and Hong Kong that conducted mass testing when cities were locked down following outbreaks this month, Malaysia is reducing testing during the MCO.

“The best way we can honour all the sacrifices that have been made the past year is to make sure we do better this year, and the best way is to learn from our history. If not, we are doomed to repeat it.”

Dr Kelvin Yii, Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching

Malaysia, which is now struggling with over-stretched medical facilities and health care workers, has implemented home quarantine for stage 1 and 2 Covid-19 patients who are tested positive but show no or mild symptoms. MOH has so far established 213 Covid-19 Assessment Centres (CAC) nationwide to determine who can self-isolate at home and who needs referrals to hospitals or quarantine and low-risk treatment centres.

Mild Covid-19 patients are now finding ways by themselves to deal with the disease. Yong told CodeBlue that she and her three children aged 16, 17, and 21 have completed the 14-day coronavirus incubation period without any medical assistance from MOH.

“I don’t know if I have cured completely,” Yong said.

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