The World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on Mac 11 (2020).
In many countries, pandemic action plans were already activated before this, including in Malaysia.
Pandemics are usually declared for influenza A, and this is the first time that a pandemic has been declared for a coronavirus.
Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus is rather similar to influenza A(H1N1), which was declared a pandemic in 2009, Malaysia can tweak its National Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Plan (NIPPP) – prepared in 2006 after the Nipah virus outbreak in 1999 – so that it will suit the Covid-19 pandemic.
Compared to the rest of the world, where 114 countries and all continents except Antarctica, have reported cases, Malaysia is still in the early phase of the Covid-19 outbreak, with only 161 confirmed cases to date (as of Mac 13).
The public health measures of containment by Health Ministry have been effective so far.
However, if the number of cases continues on an upward trend, then the ministry will have to change its strategy, moving from containment to mitigation.
Containment is effective when there is little or no community spread, and the number of cases is low.
Public health measures during containment include rapid identification of cases, contact tracing, testing of samples, isolation of confirmed and suspected cases, and mobilisation of resources where needed.
In mitigation, the main objective is social distancing, avoiding large crowds, closing of schools, working from home and reducing unnecessary travel.
This is very disruptive of social life, and requires the cooperation and commitment of the public.
Although the situation in the country is still manageable, Malaysia started its pandemic preparedness plan well ahead of time and long before WHO decided to declare the outbreak a pandemic.
Several hospitals were identified to handle Covid-19 patients; a rapid RT-PCR (reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction) test on patients and contacts was developed, used and distributed to several government hospitals and medical laboratories; and management protocols were developed.
It is important that there are enough drugs and medication to treat the symptoms of severe Covid-19 patients, although there is no medical cure for the condition.
More ICU (intensive care unit) facilities will be needed if the cases soar, and we must be prepared for this eventuality.
As for frontline healthcare personnel, they must be provided with respiratory protection devices and protective clothing, including N95 masks, gloves, goggles and PPE (personal protection equipment).
The Government should also ensure that essential services are maintained during the pandemic.
The police force, armed forces, firefighters and those manning essential services such as electricity and water supply, should all be given proper protection as well.
We certainly do not want to see the country become chaotic and dysfunctional if these services should fail.
In Malaysia, we still have time to start preparing ourselves in case the situation worsens and the ministry has to enforce mitigation measures.
By all means, stock up on non-perishable items to last for about two weeks, but let us avoid excessive hoarding of goods, which can cause a shortage of these goods and create panic in the community.
Those on regular prescription drugs for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart conditions, liver disease, kidney disease, cancer and chronic respiratory illnesses, should get additional supplies of their medication sufficient for an extra month.
And of course, stock up on face masks and hand sanitisers.
Families with elderly parents really need to pay special attention to precautions for this novel coronavirus.
Bear in mind that the death rate in the elderly is more than 10 times that in the normal population.
In Italy, 56.6% of patients who died are over 80 years old, with two-thirds of them having at least three pre-existing chronic conditions.
Of particular concern are those elderly people staying in nursing homes.
They may already have debilitating diseases and cannot afford to get infected with Covid-19.
The Government should come up with guidelines for these homes, and if necessary, restrict visitors.
We do not want to see a situation like in the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Seattle, United States, which has contributed to 19 of the Covid-19 deaths in the Washington state.
Despite the official declaration of a pandemic, our country has made contingency plans early on to tackle this global crisis.
If we all play our part individually and collectively, we will overcome this pandemic like we have done in the past.
Do not leave it entirely to the Government to handle this crisis.
Be prepared to make personal sacrifices, change our lifestyle, exercise social responsibility and be inconvenienced.
The conquest of this pandemic will make it all worthwhile!
Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit is an Academy of Sciences Malaysia senior fellow and Universiti Malaya research consultant. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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