Covid-19: ‘Social distancing almost impossible during Raya visits’, Malaysian health experts warn of high risks if guidelines taken lightly

Unlike previous years, the Hari Raya celebration this year is limited to family members following strict guidelines by the Health Ministry. — Picture by KE Ooi
Unlike previous years, the Hari Raya celebration this year is limited to family members following strict guidelines by the Health Ministry. — Picture by KE Ooi

KUALA LUMPUR, May 22 — Malaysian Muslims are gearing up to celebrate the Hari Raya over the weekend, but unlike previous years, the festivity this year is set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Despite the country’s success in mitigating the spread of the infectious disease through multiple phases of the movement control order, many health experts today warned that the government’s green light to allow social visits on the first day of Hari Raya may bring a spike in new Covid-19 cases.

Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah on Wednesday had warned against the possibility of an increase in Covid-19 cases after the festivities, should the public fail to comply with the Health Ministry’s guidelines.

However, to better understand the practicality of the guidelines, including the social distancing rules during Raya visits, Malay Mail asked several health experts to share some insights if such rules can be practised while welcoming guests at home.

According to consultant paediatrician Datuk Professor Dr Zulkifli Ismail, social distancing may not be possible in a celebratory environment.

“We have to be realistic.”

“When families get together, the distancing may occur in the first few hours but with time people get confident and forget the rules,” he said.

Dr Zulkifli, who is also Asia Pacific Paediatric Association secretary-general, pointed out that in a Raya gathering people will tend to have conversations and even talk loud in a crowded house or area.

Citing recent studies, he said it is evident that droplets will spread over a wide area and linger in the room to be inhaled by others.

“If these droplets are infected by the virus, that’s how transmission occurs.”

He also cautioned that it only takes one asymptomatic guest or relative, especially an infected child with minor infection, to spread the virus to almost all the guests after a “wefie” or eating food from the buffet table.

Echoing similar sentiments, Malaysian Society of Anaesthesiologists president Professor Dr Marzida Mansor said it is not wise to have open houses during a pandemic as it’s almost impossible to comply with the social distancing rules.

“The risk is still there even with all necessary precautions taken, unless people are donning a full protective suit,” she added.

However, public health physician Dr Aidalina Mahmud said social distancing could still be possible during Hari Raya visits only if those involved in celebrating the occasion are extremely well-versed with the guidelines.

She said people who wish to visit their relative’s houses must have high levels of insight on why social distancing is important and have equally high levels of self-discipline.

“There are groups of people who have this level of knowledge, insight and attitude; but perhaps their numbers are not great.

“On the other hand, I believe, unfortunately, the majority of Malaysians who celebrate this festive season may not have proper knowledge, insight and attitude to practise social distancing,” added Dr Aidalina.

To have a worry-free Raya, Dr Aidalina said it’s best not to have a physical celebration at all.

She advised Malaysians to do a virtual celebration where no one has to worry about social distancing, wearing a mask or washing hands.

She also warned that the risk of viral transmission is potentially high when visiting someone’s house.

“Unlike going to a supermarket, visiting someone’s house usually involves physical contact like shaking hands and hugging.

“Although we try to believe or hope that this will not happen, the fact is the no-touching greeting is a new normal and most people may accidentally not adhere to the new norms.”

Can any type of house accommodate up to 20 visitors at a time?

Although the authorities have allowed 20 visitors (limited to family members) at a time during the first day of Raya, Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia president Dr Jeffrey Abu Hassan doubted its practicality for smaller houses or apartments.

“Bear in mind that 20 is the maximum number only if the host can ensure that the three Cs, including crowded place, confined space and close conservation are avoided.

“Hence, if the house is small, even five or 10 may not be feasible, what more 20,” he said.

How to ensure everyone’s safety when receiving guests?

To keep the risks at a minimum, the health experts advised Malaysians to play their part and strictly stick to the guidelines.

Family Medicine Specialists Association president Dr Sri Wahyu Taher urged those who are celebrating to limit the number of visitors according to their house capacity to adhere to the guidelines provided by the authorities.

“Each house must provide hand sanitiser, do a thermal temperature scan before guests enter the house and limit the number of guests.

“It’s also advisable for occupants to wear a mask and keep a distance from each other, otherwise if you can’t adhere to such rules, it’s best to celebrate only with members of your own household,” she added.

Dr Sri Wahyu also advised that elderly people, babies, children and those with medical conditions to skip Raya visits this year.

“If the house has high-risk individuals, they should also not receive guests.

“People who have just returned from red zone areas, overseas and other states must practice self-quarantine and avoid visiting others,” she added.

In order to ensure easy crowd management, Dr Aidalina said the host must determine how many people can fit in the house taking into account the social distancing rules.

“Come up with an appointment system to avoid overcrowding.

“Prior to the visit day, the host can inform his/her family of the visiting hours allocated (for example between 10am and 3pm only), duration of each visit for a maximum of one hour with 15 minutes interval for the host to sanitise the house,” she said.

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