IT has been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country with the first case involving three Chinese nationals who entered Malaysia via Johor from Singapore on Jan 20,2020.
During the first wave, the majority of Covid-19 cases were imported and did not involve Malaysians, while the infection during the second wave involved local transmission with the first case reported on Feb 4.
It was during the second wave that the government imposed the movement control order beginning March 18 with strict standard operating procedure, and a few months later when the infection rate showed a declining trend, the SOP was loosened slightly with the introduction of the conditional MCO from May 4, followed by the recovery MCO on June 10.
However, due to complacency, the virus returned in the third wave and the conditional MCO was reintroduced in most states beginning last October, and when the number of cases kept increasing, the government had to re-enforce the MCO, starting with six states and subsequently, nationwide, except Sarawak.
As of Saturday, the cumulative number of 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), whereby 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.
Ismail Sabri, as the minister responsible for addressing Covid-19 from non-health aspects, shared his views and experiences on the challenges of managing the pandemic, especially on the implementation of the SOP during the various MCO periods.
Q: The Covid-19 epidemic has hit Malaysia for a year. In March last year, the government 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 the extent that MCO was enforced again. What caused the increase in infection?
A: At that time (March 2020), the people were scared of Covid-19. When the government said “stay at home, do not go out”, almost all citizens obeyed and violation of the SOP was minimal. But over time, (maybe) the people felt that life was back to normal because the MCO was lifted and the government also started to provide relief gradually.
Almost all economic sectors were reopened 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 mask was observed, mass group activities still took place, especially during the Sabah state election. Compliance with physical distancing was minimal. At that time, one of the reasons for the increase in cases in Sabah was due to foreign immigrants and the spread in the community, and subsequently to the peninsula after the state election.
Q: What was the public rate of compliance with the MCO SOP?
A: 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 village although it is not emphasised. But MOH thinks that face mask alone without physical distancing is not enough. We see in most places, like restaurants for example, there is no physical distancing. This is the most dangerous.
Q: Many said the cases increased again when interstate movement was allowed, including for holidays. Your opinion on this?
A: It may involve interstate crossing, but in terms of the largest contributors of cases, they came from foreign workers in the manufacturing sector, which is why they are required to undergo Covid-19 screening. Secondly, it’s the workers at the construction site. So, we focused on these problems by providing conducive housing for workers and so on. As for the Covid-19 cases due to interstate crossing, it is just one of the contributors of cases and not the largest contributor.
Q: How is Covid-19 seen able to discipline the people, as well as making them adapt to new norms?
A: It can be said that there is already awareness in society – just look at the malls. There are fewer 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 contact. The issue is physical distancing because they believe that by wearing the face mask, being at a close distance with others is not a risk.
Q: The SOP on physical distancing is clearly difficult to comply with. What action will the authorities take to instil awareness?
A: Firstly, we can only remind the people. Despite constant reminders by me and the Health DG (Dr Noor Hisham) on the SOP compliance, every day there are still dozens of people caught for failing to comply with the SOP. 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.
Q: When will the country’s border be opened?
A: We will not reopen the border so quickly because other countries are also facing the pandemic. Although the government recently planned to open the borders for some countries through the green zone travel bubble, it has now been put on hold.
It is Malaysia’s decision. But what about other countries that will not allow Malaysians to travel to their country? The United States has issued a directive for its citizens not to consider travelling to our country due to the high Covid-19 cases.
I think the border will be the last to be reopened. Otherwise, cases from other countries may be unknowingly brought here and spread in our country. For example, we still stop students from the United Kingdom who study in Malaysia (from coming). Other students are allowed to enter but with strict SOP compliance. — Bernama
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