Yearstarter 2023: Health - Covid-19 still a threat, masks off, tobacco out


A health worker (right) uses a swab to collect a sample for Covid-19 coronavirus testing from a man in Gombak on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on April 22, 2020. – Photo: Mohd RASFAN / AFP)

OUR lives have changed so much following three years of living in uncertainty over the global pandemic.

We hoped scientists and their brilliant minds would find a surefire way to stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading but this virus seems to be far cleverer.

Unlike its SARS-CoV cousin which was discovered in China in 2002 and spread to 29 countries over a year but mysteriously disappeared after causing 8,000 illnesses and 700 deaths, SARS-Cov2 shows no signs of abating.

Time ticked away as the days, weeks and months blurred while experts and authorities raced to find solutions to prevent healthcare systems from collapsing, and give people their pre-pandemic lives back.

Indeed, the vaccines and boosters have helped reduce the number of deaths and hospital admissions, but Covid-19, in particular the Omicron variant and its mutations, is continuing to play peek-a-boo worldwide.

Malaysia’s confirmed number of Covid-19 cases surpassed the five million mark last month, with 36,835 deaths recorded as at Dec 26, 2022. We have the highest number of deaths per million population among Asean countries.

Our lives will never be the same again but as human beings, our resilient nature has thrust us forward into a new normal.

We have the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, per million population, among our neighbouring countries.We have the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, per million population, among our neighbouring countries.

Covid-19 has robbed us of so many things – our loved ones, spontaneity that we took for granted, time and youth, and yes, sparked or amplified more serious mental health problems across all age group.Alarming headlines about war, natural disasters, inflation, new virus mutations and a global economic crisis have affected everyone.

Roughly 30% of our population is estimated to be suffering from mental health issues, with a sharp spike in suicide rates last year.

According to a survey on mental health and wellness conducted by Rakuten Insight in Malaysia in May 2022, 59% of respondents aged between 16 and 24 years indicated that they had a higher level of stress or anxiety in the past 12 months; this figure was 56% in the 25-34 age group; 47% in the 35-44 age group; 44% in the 45-54 age group and 35% in the 55+ age group.

Data analysis on the Health Ministry’s (MOH) psychosocial helpline from March 2020 until now showed that roughly 75% of callers needed emotional support due to chronic stress, depression and anxiety throughout the pandemic.

The virus also limited everything – embraces, personal space, community, jobs, incomes, get-togethers, etc. Some thrived in this atmosphere while others hungered for physical human contact.

The misery may have been alleviated by the ability to connect virtually but after three years, we know it’s simply not the same. Humans need to connect with others on a physical and emotional level to improve our health and overall well-being.

Out with the mask

Last April, Malaysia entered into the Transition to Endemic Phase and in May, the Health Ministry announced relaxations in the Covid-19 standard operating procedures, namely lifting the rule on wearing face masks, which are now optional indoors except in healthcare facilities and on public transport.

Physical distancing measures were also abolished and MySejahtera check-ins are no longer mandatory when entering public areas and premises.

The requirement to wear a face mask has gradually been lifted in many areas as we said goodbye to coronavirus restrictions though some are still not taking chances and keeping them on. — Photos: FilepicThe requirement to wear a face mask has gradually been lifted in many areas as we said goodbye to coronavirus restrictions though some are still not taking chances and keeping them on. — Photos: Filepic

This makes it possible to resume pre-pandemic activities such as travel, attend large events, and restart face-to-face classes in schools and higher learning institutions.

Yet, despite the growing calls to treat Covid-19 like a regular flu, there is still an uneasy feeling or fear when we get infected because every one of us has the potential to “kill”.

Thus, routine self-testing using Covid-19 rapid antigen test kits (RTK) have also become a norm before attending social functions or when symptoms appear, to protect ourselves and others.

Antiviral drug

In April, the antiviral drug Paxlovid was made available in Malaysia to treat Covid-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms or Categories 2 and 3, with priority given to high risk patients.

However, many Covid-19 patients are self-treating at home and unaware that the medicine is available for free in government hospitals/health clinics and private health facilities.

Attending doctors will conduct assessments on Covid-19 patients to determine whether they are eligible to receive the prescription of Paxlovid.

Note that in private health facilities, patients are still subject to consultation charges and other related charges determined by the hospital.

Paxlovid is the first oral antiviral drug avaiable in Malaysia that treats Covid-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms or Categories 2 and 3, and high risk individuals.Paxlovid is the first oral antiviral drug avaiable in Malaysia that treats Covid-19 patients with mild to moderate symptoms or Categories 2 and 3, and high risk individuals.

Banning tobacco products

Aside from Covid-19, the other big health talk in 2022 was the Generational End Game (GEG) Bill, which sought to ban the use, sale and possession of tobacco and vape products for those born after Jan 1, 2007.

This group of youngsters would also not be allowed to buy or use any form of smoking- related products, including electronic cigarettes or vape, with the aim of banning future generations from smoking and vaping.

This was former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin’s “baby” that involved months of preparation and was tabled for the first reading in July, but was later referred to the Parliamentary Special Select Committee for fine-tuning.

It was set to be retabled in Parliament in October. Alas, Parliament was dissolved to pave the way for the 15th General Election, and with that, the bill never came to fruition.

However, newly minted Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa announced that the GEG policy will be re-examined in terms of its implementation through the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 once the next Parliament session commences.

The Generational End Game policy will be re-examined in terms of its implementation through the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 once Parliament commences. — AFPThe Generational End Game policy will be re-examined in terms of its implementation through the Control of Tobacco Product and Smoking Bill 2022 once Parliament commences. — AFP

Addressing healthcare constraints

We also saw the development of the Health White Paper (HWP) in 2022, which sought to address the imbalance in resource allocation, organisation and policy focus between public, primary and secondary care.

The HWP was aimed at future-proofing the healthcare system by focusing on key areas such as equitability of access, sustainable healthcare financing, governance, oversight and accountability and bringing “health” back to healthcare.

This document captures the combination of hundreds of years of expertise from current and retired healthcare professionals, experts, communities, patients and stakeholders looking to transform the landscape of Malaysian healthcare.

The HWP Advisory Council was co-chaired by former health minister Tan Sri Dr S. Subramaniam and Axiata Group Bhd chairman Tan Sri Shahril Ridza Ridzuan.

Like the GEG, the HWP, which is important to ensure the success of the much needed long-term healthcare system reforms, was not tabled due to the dissolution of Parliament.

The Health White Paper was developed to ensure the success of long-term healthcare system reforms such as addressing overcrowding in hospitals, but has been shelved due to Parliament dissolution.The Health White Paper was developed to ensure the success of long-term healthcare system reforms such as addressing overcrowding in hospitals, but has been shelved due to Parliament dissolution.

Bivalent boosters in 2023

No one knows when Covid-19 will lose its pandemic status – global health officials thought it would be last year due largely to rising vaccination rates – but this was not the case as the disease is still a threat with the widespread but less lethal Omicron infection.

That means we have to learn to live with the virus.

The Omicron variant has frustrated citizens and experts alike with its ability to evade immunity from vaccines and prior infections – neither vaccination nor having had Covid-19 reduces chances of reinfection.

Last week, MOH said it was stepping up preparedness to face a possible hike in the number of daily Covid-19 cases and deaths following the surge of infections in China.

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said among the measures to be taken was to increase the percentage of booster dose uptake to reduce the severity of infections and the risk of death.

Only 49.8% of those eligible have gotten their first booster shots and a paltry 1.9%, the second booster.

While Malaysia’s vaccination rate is at a good place with 78% of Malaysia’s total population fully vaccinated, there was a low uptake of boosters. – Photo: AZHAR MAHFOF/The StarWhile Malaysia’s vaccination rate is at a good place with 78% of Malaysia’s total population fully vaccinated, there was a low uptake of boosters. – Photo: AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Those who fall under the high-risk category and/or are travelling are advised to take their second booster shot, which can be taken four to six months after the first booster shot.

While the Covid-19 vaccines available were designed to protect against the original strain of the virus (now called monovalent vaccine), scientists have designed a booster that has shown to be effective against the Omicron variant and subvariant BA.4 and BA.5 (bivalent boosters), and thanks to advances in vaccine technology, they continue to work on updating it.

The Drug Control Authority recently granted conditional approval for Pfizer and Cansino’s updated Covid-19 vaccines, paving the way for them to be rolled out as booster shots in Malaysia.

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YearStarter 2023 , Covid-19

   

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