Health experts say shaky start to MCO not cause for alarm but warn that compliance cannot falter

Subramaniam says a major concern is the cramped living conditions of most of the country’s foreign workers that put them at risk of Covid-19. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Subramaniam says a major concern is the cramped living conditions of most of the country’s foreign workers that put them at risk of Covid-19. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 — The current movement control order (MCO) can work to contain Malaysia’s runaway Covid-19 infections, health experts said when stressing that weak compliance could put this at risk.

Despite Malaysia’s persistently high numbers of new daily cases after the first week of the MCO, they told Malay Mail that the measure would ultimately pay dividends.

The effectiveness of the MCO has been called into question by two days of new daily cases breaching the 4,000-case mark: once on January 16 and again yesterday.

Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) president Prof Datuk Dr M. Subramaniam stressed that the MCO will need time to be effective.

“The Health Ministry hopes the situation will improve in four weeks. Restrictions under the MCO such as barring interstate and interdistrict travel, dining-in restrictions and work from home measures will over time, bring down the infectivity rate as there will be reduced people at workplaces, major towns and cities,” he said in a statement to Malay Mail.

He also said the MCO was necessary as the basic reproduction number (R0) of Covid-19 infections was between 1.1 and 1.2 at the start of the lockdown.

In the Health Ministry’s SEIR model, Malaysia is projected to reach 8,000 cases in March if the RO reaches 1.2. However, the same model had also projected that Malaysia would only exceed 4,000 cases in the middle of February.

Social and Economic Research Initiative (Seri) think tank chief executive Dr Helmy Haja Mydin also said a “circuit breaker” was necessary in order to give the country’s public health system a chance to recover.

“The idea of an MCO is to bring down the rate of infection so that our healthcare facilities will not be overwhelmed. At the moment, the daily numbers are higher than what mathematical models have predicted - hence the need to intervene.

“Whilst overall mortality rates remain low, this may change if there's a delay in getting the right patient to the right facility for the right treatment. A 'circuit-breaker' such as the MCO will bring down the number of infections and provide a reprieve.

“It is good that the decision was made to restrict social movements. This includes preventing interstate travel, which I believe should continue at least until the Chinese New Year. We should continue to be guided by data and intervene as selectively and quickly as possible in order to minimise collateral economic damage,’’ he said.

Previously, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham said Malaysia could effectively flatten the infection curve by May, with a maximum fours weeks of MCO imposed.

Ideally, Dr Noor Hisham said new daily cases should be as low as 500 by then.

While the health experts concurred that the MCO was necessary, they said its success was still dependent on Malaysians all doing their part.

“It will depend on both the public's compliance with the SOPs and enforcement. We have learned that with a lack of enforcement, there will be cases of the public letting their guard down.

“One major concern is the cramped living conditions of most of the country’s foreign workers that put them at high risk of Covid-19. If this is not improved, cases can spike again at any time.

“Employers need to act fast and start making these improvements now or we may be forced into another MCO in the future. The government must take a more serious view of this,’’ he said.

“However, we aren’t sure if the overall number of new daily cases will be reduced as the mandatory Covid-19 testing of foreign workers is still being carried out around the country by private general practitioners under the Socso programme. There have been cases detected among this segment of the population,’’ he added.

Dr Subramanian was referring to the initiative under the Social Security Organisation (Socso) where employers are encouraged to obtain Covid-19 screening for their foreign workers.

For former MMA president, Dr. N. Ganabaskaran, adherence to the standard operating procedures must be observed regardless of what stage of movement control was in effect.

“Previously we saw when the government relaxed the movements restrictions order, people went back to their usual routine, travelling across districts, visiting eateries without following the SOPs and many other SOP breaches.

“At the moment people are asking whether the MCO will extend and whether it will be sufficient but the daily infection tally will come down eventually with the MCO in place.

“However, ultimately, It is very difficult to contain the outbreak if we all do not comply with the set restrictions,’’ he said.

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