Malaysia Not Testing Enough For Covid-19: World Bank

The World Bank’s internal estimate shows that “an open and comprehensive testing policy is positively associated both with containment and growth outcomes”.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 23 — The World Bank today criticised Malaysia over its lagging Covid-19 public health response, particularly on testing, that has resulted in a dramatic surge of the epidemic.

World Bank Group senior economist of macroeconomics, trade and investment Shakira Teh Sharifuddin said the severity of the current wave has raised concerns about the overall capacity of the country’s health system, with most hospital intensive care units (ICU) running at nearly full capacity.

This was contributed by key containment measures, including mass testing and contact tracing, that have not been fully or effectively implemented, she said.

“Malaysia’s positivity rate, which currently stands above the 5 per cent threshold, is considered to be indicative of inadequate testing,” Shakira said during the launch of the World Bank’s Malaysia Economic Monitor “Weathering the Surge” report today. 

She noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that ideally, a positive rate lower than 3 per cent can be regarded as a benchmark for adequate testing. WHO recommended in May 2020 that positive rates (share of tests that show positive for Covid-19) should remain at 5 per cent or lower for at least two weeks before countries reopen. 

Malaysia’s positive rate in the past four weeks from May 23 to June 19 ranged from 6.61 per cent to 7.28 per cent, reaching 6.93 per cent in the 24th epidemiological week from June 13 to 19.

Testing consistently declined in the past month from an average of 109,601 people tested daily in the week of May 23-29 to just 80,165 testings a day in the week of June 13-19.

Amid reduced testing, reported Covid-19 cases also fell from an average 7,631 daily infections in the week of May 23-29 to 5,559 daily cases in the week of June 13-19.

The government has set a maximum seven-day daily average of 4,000 coronavirus cases to move into Phase Two of movement restrictions, even as the nation’s total lockdown is scheduled to end on June 28.

Shakira pointed out that the Ministry of Health (MOH) has also expressed concern regarding the emergence of new variants of concern, particularly the Delta variant, that may spread at a faster pace and result in high fatality rates.

More than a year since the Covid-19 outbreak first began, Malaysia has seen a dramatic surge and worrying trend in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.

“If you compare that against other countries and normalise it by population, we have surpassed even that of India, which we all know was the epicentre of the pandemic early during the year,” Shakira said.

For context, Malaysia logged its first 100,000th cases over a span of one year. However, between April and May 2021 alone, the number of new cases amounted to more than 100,000. 

Similarly, it took Malaysia almost a year for Covid-19 deaths to accumulate to 500. In the last 10 days alone, however, more than 500 people died from the virus.

Meanwhile, the national Covid-19 vaccination programme has gained some momentum in the last four to six weeks, boosted by the parallel opt-in AstraZeneca vaccination programme as well as the setting up of large-scale vaccination centres and mobile units in rural areas.

As of June 22, a total of 4,574,685 people or 14 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The World Bank states, however, that Malaysia faces several downside risks and a return to normalcy will depend greatly on effectively containing the spread of the virus.

“Without a proper testing strategy, reopening of the economy would come at a risk of another wave of new cases and this could precipitate another phase of movement restrictions. With the current phase of Malaysia’s vaccine rollout, any further delays or disruptions could also affect the safe reopening of the economy,” Shakira said.

She said containing the current wave of the epidemic should remain the topmost priority for Malaysia in the immediate term. 

Malaysia’s capacity for smart containment should be strengthened and an effective testing strategy is essential to ensure the safe reopening of the economy and easing of restrictions. 

“We have done an internal estimate at the Bank and what we have seen is an open and comprehensive testing policy is positively associated both with containment and growth outcomes,” Shakira said.

Malaysia’s economy posted a smaller contraction of 0.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 (1Q21), cushioned by fewer restrictions on movement during the earlier part of the year, and measures such as the Employees Provident Fund’s (EPF) i-Sinar withdrawal scheme that provided support to private consumption.

“The economy also benefited from a general strengthening in global trade activity and this is reflected in the acceleration of exports, particularly manufacturing exports, which expanded by 22 per cent during the quarter on increased demand for global electronics and rubber gloves,” Shakira said.

Unemployment remains elevated at 4.8 per cent in 1Q21, despite some signs of recovery in the labour market. In April, the figure declined slightly to 4.6 per cent, which remains higher than pre-pandemic levels.

The World Bank slashed its projection of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth this year to 4.5 per cent, down from 6 per cent it projected earlier in April.

The revised projection is based on expectations that movement restrictions, increased precautionary behaviour and subdued wage growth will continue to exert negative pressures on consumer spending, particularly those on services related sectors.

“The revision reflects two things. First, the resurgence in the number of new cases, and secondly, the slower than expected rollout of the vaccination programme.

“Going forward, the pace and trajectory of growth will depend on three broad factors: the length and severity of movement restrictions, the effectiveness of pandemic containment measures, and the pace and rollout of the vaccination programme,” Shakira said.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Economy) Mustapa Mohamed in his speech admitted that the increase in Covid-19 cases and subsequent implementation of lockdown measures have had an impact on Malaysia’s economic recovery.

“At the moment, our officials are crunching the numbers to assess the impact of the lockdown that began on June 1 on the Malaysian economy. If the government’s measures, including rapid vaccination and lockdowns accompanied by strict observance of SOPs, are successful in reducing the number of cases, Malaysia can look forward to a strong economic recovery in 4Q21,” he said.

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