Ismail Sabri: Failure to observe physical distancing contributes to rise in Covid-19 cases


KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama): Monday (Jan 25) marks a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country with the first case involving three Chinese nationals who had entered Malaysia via Johor from Singapore on Jan 20,2020.

During the first wave, a majority of the Covid-19 cases were imported and did not involve Malaysians, while the infection during the second wave involved local transmissions with the first case reported on Feb 4,2020.

It was during the second wave that the government imposed the movement control order, beginning March 18,2020, with strict standard operating procedures (SOPs) and a few months later, when the infections showed a declining trend, the government loosened the SOPs slightly with the introduction of the conditional MCO from May 4, followed by the recovery MCO on June 10.

However, due to some complacency, the virus returned for a third wave and the government had to re-enforce the conditional MCO in most states beginning last October, and when the number of cases kept increasing, the government had to re-enforce the full MCO, starting with six states and subsequently, nationwide, except Sarawak.

As of Saturday (Jan 23), the cumulative number of Covid-19 cases reported was 180,455, with 42,769 active cases, meaning the country is expected to continue to record high daily figures.

A total of 667 deaths due to Covid-19 have been recorded so far.

One thing that should be acknowledged is that the government has implemented various initiatives, advocacy and regulations in the country on the advice of the Health Ministry (MOH), where during this period, Malaysians are informed almost every day on the latest developments pertaining to the Covid-19 infection, especially by Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob and Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah.

It has been a year and Covid-19 issues continue to pose a challenge to the country, not only in terms of health, but its impact on the economy.

Recently, during an exclusive interview with Bernama, Ismail Sabri, as the minister responsible for addressing Covid-19 from the non-health aspects, shared his views and experiences on the challenge of managing the pandemic.

Following is a transcript of the interview:

Bernama: The Covid-19 epidemic has hit Malaysia for a year. Since March last year, the government has implemented the MCO, followed by the conditional MCO and recovery MCO. Initially, the effort seemed successful in reducing the number of cases, but it became critical to an extent that the MCO was enforced again. What caused the increase in infections?

Ismail Sabri: At that time (March 2020), the people were too scared of Covid-19. When the government said,"stay at home, do not go out", almost all citizens obeyed and violations of the SOPs were less. But over time, (maybe) the people feel that life was back to normal because there was no MCO and even the government also started to provide relief gradually.

Almost all economic sectors were opened and even social activities, such as holding of feasts and sports activities were allowed, causing the people to feel safe from Covid-19. Although the regulation to wear face masks was observed, mass group activities still took place, especially during the Sabah state election.

Physical distancing was almost not complied with at all. At that time, one of the reasons for the increase in cases in Sabah was due to foreign immigrants and spread in the community, subsequently to the peninsula, after the election was over.

Bernama: What was the public rate of compliance with the MCO SOPs?

Ismail Sabri: Based on a study conducted by Universiti Teknologi Mara, almost 95% of the people complied with the SOP on the use of face masks. It has become a new culture, even in the villages, even though it is not emphasised. But Health Ministry thinks that face masks alone without physical distancing are not enough. We see most places, like restaurants for example, there is no physical distancing. This is the most dangerous.

Bernama: Many say that the cases increased again when inter-state movement was allowed, including for holidays. What is Datuk Seri's opinion on this?

Ismail Sabri: There may be some involvement relating to inter-state travels, but in terms of the largest contributors of cases, they are foreign workers in the manufacturing sector, which is why they are required to undergo Covid-19 screening tests. Secondly, it’s the workers at the construction sites. So, we focus on these problems by providing conducive housing for workers and so on. As for the Covid-19 cases due to inter-state crossing, it is just one of the contributors and not the largest contributor.

Bernama: How is Covid-19 seen able to discipline the people, as well as making them adapt to the new norms?

Ismail Sabri: It can be said that there is already awareness in society, just look at the malls, there are less people and they know if there is no need to go out, there is no need to leave the house, let alone bring small children along.

So far, the use of face masks is obvious and we see people starting to change their way of life and with more discipline, for example such as bowing respectfully to avoid shaking hands or physical contact.

The issue is physical distancing because they believe by wearing the face mask, being at a close distance with others is not a risk.

Bernama: The SOPs on physical distancing are clearly difficult to comply with. What are the actions by the authorities to instil awareness about it?

Ismail Sabri: Firstly, we can only remind the people. Despite being reminded by me and the Health DG (Dr Noor Hisham) on SOP compliance, every day there will be dozens of people being taken action against for failing to comply with the SOPs.

Secondly, it is a legal action, with its own punishment and the third, is self-awareness. There are policemen who are gentle and use their discretion, but sometimes they have no choice, resulting in the people being penalised.

Bernama: On the country’s borders, when will it be re-opened?

Ismail Sabri: We will not open the borders so quickly because other countries are also facing the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the government recently planned to open its borders for some countries through the green zone travel bubble, it was put on hold.

This is because it is not what Malaysia intends to do, but what about other countries that will not allow Malaysians to travel to their country?

The United States has also issued a directive for its citizens to consider not traveling to our country due to the high number of Covid-19 cases.

I think this matter on the borders will be the last to be opened because otherwise, cases from other countries will enter and spread in the country. For example, we still stop students from the United Kingdom who study in this country (from coming). Other students are allowed to enter following strict SOPs. - Bernama

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