Asia

Commentary: Malaysia needs more than the ‘hammer’ of lockdowns to get COVID-19 under control

SINGAPORE: Tomas Pueyo, in a highly influential piece, commented on the need for governments to adopt both the “hammer” and “dance” to successfully combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hammer” refers to strict lockdown measures implemented when COVID-19 infection numbers are rising rapidly to cut off the COVID-19 transmission chain, thereby preventing a collapse in the healthcare system.

“Dance”, on the other hand, refers to a series of carefully calibrated measures which are economically and socially less disruptive. The end goal is for the virus to be contained with the R (reproduction) value of less than one.

READ: Commentary: Will Malaysian king take PM Muhyiddin’s government to task for huge COVID-19 mess?

Pueyo’s insights appear to be spot on in the case of Malaysia’s struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jun 11, Malaysia announced that it would extend its second total lockdown, which started on Jun 1, in order to cope with the rapid surge in COVID-19 infections.

Between Mar 29 and May 29, daily positive cases increased by ten-fold, with director-general of health Noor Hisham warning that the country’s healthcare is “on the verge of collapse”.

According to the guidelines, all economic and social activities shall cease during the duration of total lockdown except for businesses under the essential service or approved list.

READ: Commentary: Resurgent pandemic sparks unemployment crisis among Malaysia’s most vulnerable workers

‘HAMMER’ STRIKES AREN’T VIABLE IN LONG TERM

Recent infection numbers have since fallen from the peak of 9,020 recorded on May 29. However, given the immense social and economic costs whenever the “hammer” strikes, it should not be seen as a viable long-term strategy.

As the pandemic is unlikely to be eradicated until one’s population attains herd immunity through mass vaccination, Pueyo argued that governments meanwhile have to “dance” with the virus by carefully calibrating measures to be less economically and socially disruptive.

Herd immunity remains a distant goal for Malaysia as fewer than 10 per cent of the population have received at least one dose of vaccination. The government therefore needs to consider other “dance” measures.

Chart 1: Positive rate of Covid-19 tests in Malaysia and other ASEAN states. (Source: Our World in Data; Graphic: Fulcrum)

As seen from the Chart 1, the positive rate of COVID-19 tests has risen steadily since late March and has coincided with the rapid rise in detected daily new infections cases.

The positive rate of COVID-19 tests has consistently exceeded the widely used 5 per cent international benchmark since May 8, and possibly indicates that there are undetected COVID-19 infections within the community.

While Malaysia has a lower positive rate compared to Indonesia, the percentage is higher than Thailand and Singapore. Similarly, in terms of number of tests conducted per 1,000, testing numbers have not picked up dramatically despite the surge in daily infection numbers since early April.

Chart 2: Daily number of Covid-19 tests conducted per 1,000 in Malaysia and other ASEAN states. (Source: Our World in Data; Graphic: Fulcrum)

Presently, the cost of RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests in private medical institutions is a few hundred Ringgit, which may discourage some from being tested should they be ineligible for free RT-PCR tests in government clinics.

The Selangor state government is offering free COVID-19 testing to all its residents in a bid to encourage mass testing, with the programme attracting thousands of sign-ups each day.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) should emulate the Selangor example by setting up mass testing facilities in all other states, in collaboration with the respective state governments.

To process a large number of samples within a short period of time, Antigen Rapid Test (ART) could be used instead of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, which is presently the MOH’s preferred mode of testing.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s nationwide MCO – denial, doubts and divisions threaten effectiveness

READ: Commentary: Malaysians in lockdown coo over pictures of returning wildlife – but there’s more than meets the eye

NEED FOR A ‘SHIELD’

Apart from employing a “hammer” and “dance” to manage the pandemic, it is increasingly clear that they should be complemented with a “shield” in the form of vaccines, as lockdowns and quarantines can only do so much.

It is becoming apparent that vaccines are a vital aspect of the fight against the pandemic. From this perspective, the rate of vaccinations in Malaysia has picked up pace in the past week.

On Jun 14, Malaysia administered a record high of just under 200,000 doses. The government is hoping to eventually increase the daily vaccination rate to between 300,000 to 400,000 shots.

READ: Commentary: With federal and state governments involved, are there too many cooks in Malaysia’s vaccine drive?

This renewed sense of urgency is a positive step in the right direction in Malaysia’s quest to vaccinate up to 80 per cent of the country. A good example of this spirit can be seen from recent efforts by mobile outreach teams that have been sent into Sarawak’s interior to carry out COVID-19 vaccinations.

This, however, can be further exemplified in the recognition for increased collaboration between the state and the private sector in enabling mass vaccinations.

The next few weeks will be a crucial test for Malaysia’s fight against COVID-19. Whether the country can effectively raise this much needed “shield” in time for its people will determine the fate of many.

Kevin Zhang is Research Officer at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Kevin SY Tan is Visiting Senior Fellow at the same institute. This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a commentary for Fulcrum.

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