Malaysia Sees COVID-19 Cases Slowly Declining Due to Lockdown

Hadi Azmi and Noah Lee
Kuala Lumpur
2021-02-12
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Malaysia Sees COVID-19 Cases Slowly Declining Due to Lockdown People wait for coronavirus testing at a badminton hall in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Jan. 18, 2021.
[AFP]

A month-old lockdown in Malaysia is paying off as new coronavirus infections have declined slowly in the past 12 days, some medical associations told BenarNews, adding that a national emergency since mid-January has had little effect in containing the virus.

The lockdown alone would have helped bring cases down but a state of emergency declared by the king helped by ensuring there were no political upheavals, said Ahmad Shukri, president of the Malaysian Muslim Doctors Association.

In fact, the number of COVID-19 infections nearly doubled during the first month of the emergency, but more testing and contact tracing during the lockdown – called the Movement Control Order, or MCO – propelled the rise in cases, he said.

“We have seen the reduction over the last few days. The high number of cases [earlier] was because of massive screenings at places such as factories,” Shukri told BenarNews.

Shukri said the lockdown alone was responsible for the latest decline. He also voiced the hope that the government extend the MCO, which is set to end Feb. 18, for another two weeks.

“MCO is enough, there was no need for an emergency,” Shukri said.

“But on the plus side, it brought political stability to the country, allowing space for the government to take necessary actions to fight the pandemic.”

When asked if an emergency was necessary to bring down COVID-19 cases, Dr. Megat Mohammad Amirul Amzar, of Medical Mythbusters Malaysia (M3), told BenarNews, “not really.”

He, too, however said that political instability at this time would have imperiled efforts to stem the pandemic.

New coronavirus infections between Jan. 12 – the date the emergency was imposed – and Feb. 12 rose to 116,765, from 58,699 cases recorded in the previous 30 days, according to an analysis of government data.

Since Jan. 31 – when new cases reached a daily record of 5,728 – new infections have generally declined every day since, according to statistics compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Public-private cooperation in health care

On Friday, Malaysia reported 3,318 new infections, to bring the nationwide total to 258,306 cases since the pandemic began here early last year.

On Jan. 11, the government announced a two-week lockdown – which it later extended to mid-February – a day before King Al-Sultan Abdullah Riayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah imposed a national emergency.

The lockdown was instituted to stem the rising number of coronavirus cases at the time, health officials noted, and the king had said the emergency was needed for the same reason because, as the National Palace put it, the viral outbreak had then reached “a very critical level.” 

Critics and some opposition leaders had said that an emergency was not required and a lockdown would have been sufficient.

They also said that Muhyiddin Yassin, the prime minister of Malaysia’s unelected government, had lost majority support in Parliament and had advised the king to declare an emergency so he could stay in power and avoid a general election. Under the emergency authorized through Aug. 1, parliament and state assemblies have been suspended and the prospect of snap polls has been pushed back.

Dzulkefly Ahmad, who was minister of health in the government that preceded Muhyiddin’s, said the emergency was a political ploy and that the PM’s COVID-19 strategy had failed.

“While the MCO was ostensibly ineffectively executed, without the other public health measures suggested in place, the emergency ordinance was doubtless a political tool, aimed at immobilizing not only politicians but more importantly rendering parliamentary democracy dysfunctional,” Dzulkefly said.

Instead of a lockdown, Dzulkefly said Malaysia needed a Congestion Control Order at places of work, along with partial movement restrictions. This, he said, would reduce infections at the workplace.

During the current lockdown, businesses in five essential economic sectors are allowed to stay open, although at reduced capacity.

But workplace clusters are proving to be the places where most new coronavirus infection are being reported, according to the daily statistics provided by Malaysia’s health chief, Dr. Noor Hisham Abdullah.

For instance, on Friday, 14 new coronavirus clusters were detected, with 13 of them linked to workplaces, the state-run Bernama news agency reported.

For the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia, the emergency regulations have helped smooth cooperation, particularly between medical practitioners in the private and public sectors.

“The emergency ordinance is helping us to override all the rules that we had before. We are able to share resources with the government hospitals, and doctors from both sides can assist each other without the red tape,” Kuljit Singh, president of the association, told BenarNews.

“Same goes to if I need to borrow something from the government, be it medication or equipment. It is seamless, with one phone call, it will arrive,” he explained.

However, the Malaysian Medical Association had said in a statement days after the emergency went into effect that the private health-care sector had been offering its services from the start of the pandemic.

‘Infectivity rate down’

Meanwhile Malaysia’s health chief said on Friday via social media that the infectivity rate in the country – known as R0 and pronounced R-Naught – had declined to 0.88 from 1.16 on Jan. 31.

R0 is a mathematical term that epidemiologists use to calculate how contagious a disease is. The term represents the number of people a person with the virus can infect.

“In our calculation, based on four weeks of MCO followed by CMCO [partial lockdown], we hope to see a lower rate of infectivity at 0.6 percent. This means in a week’s time, we hope to see 2,000 cases [daily], then 1,000 cases, and then 500 cases and so on,” Noor Hisham Abdullah told reporters on Tuesday.

“If we keep lowering the infectivity rate, it is possible for us to flatten the curve, perhaps by March or April and we hope to hit two digits by mid-May or the end of May.”

While the gradual decline in cases and a lower R0 seem to indicate the pandemic is easing, some naysayers believe that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Health authorities performed fewer coronavirus tests since early February, wrote CodeBlue, a Malaysian healthcare publication, citing Ministry of Health data.

For instance, on Feb. 3, more than 67,000 people were tested, while on Feb. 9 only a little more than 49,000 people were tested for the virus, CodeBlue reported.

This is akin to burying one’s head in the sand, said Dr. Nusa Mohd Nordin, a noted physician who has criticized the government’s pandemic policy.

Nordin referred to then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion last July that fewer tests meant fewer new coronavirus infections.

“Malaysia conducted 14 tests per every new case which is lower than Thailand’s 25, South Korea’s 121, Taiwan’s 548, Singapore’s 1,068, and New Zealand’s 1,680,” Nordin said.

“This is a self-fulfilling prophecy by the health ministry via Trump’s COVID-19 science – less tests equals fewer cases.”

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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