Steep rise in Malaysia's Covid-19 cases due to lack of testing and enforcement, say experts

Hundreds of new clusters and tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases have emerged in Malaysia.
Hundreds of new clusters and tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases have emerged in Malaysia.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Twenty days into Malaysia's reinstatement of tighter rules under the movement control order (MCO), the coronavirus running rampant has continued to push cases on a steep upward trajectory.

Experts say the authorities have dropped the ball on enforcement, testing and contact tracing, leading to community transmissions continuing unabated.

They also question why workplaces have been responsible for nearly two-thirds of the 350 new clusters reported between Jan 6 and Jan 22, when they are supposed to operate only under strict safe measures.

The more than 3,000 daily infections that triggered the MCO on Jan 13 pale in comparison to the figure that now stands at over 5,000; the 21 deaths on Tuesday (Feb 2) also marked a new record.

Curiously, at the same time that MCO 2.0 kicked in, the authorities stopped testing all close contacts of Covid-19 patients, taking instead just 20 samples if the number of people exposed is under 50. If more were exposed, 30 people or 10 per cent of the total close contacts, whichever is lower, would be tested.

This is despite an open letter from 46 experts to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in early January calling for more tests, as the positive rate has hovered at more than 8 per cent this year, well above the World Health Organisation's 5 per cent benchmark for effective containment.

Calling lockdowns "just a tool to buy time", healthcare analyst Heikal Rosnan said Malaysia needs a clear long-term plan based on the resources it has at hand.

"The virus is already in the community, so our activities need to be community-led and data-driven," the director of Bower Group Asia told The Straits Times.

"We have more red zones now than green zones. Perhaps it's time to reverse the MCO and have people prove they are negative before going into green zones, thereby allowing economic activity to continue safely," he said.

Hundreds of new clusters and tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases have emerged.

Economic sectors, such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture, and various services have remained in operation, despite reports of breaches in standard operating procedures.

ST reported last month that it was only after a government threat of shutting down their businesses that various trade groups and chambers of commerce began cajoling their members to voluntarily undertake more stringent and costly measures to pre-empt a total lockdown.

Former deputy health minister Lee Boon Chye was also reported saying that given the limited movements under the MCO, contract tracing and containment could be more effectively done "within the first 48 hours of a reported case".

Raising even more doubts about the robustness of Malaysia's contact tracing was the revelation last week by health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah that the surge in numbers to Saturday's record 5,728 new cases was due to late reporting of infections from as far back as last year.

Without access to reliable data, it is difficult to formulate a proper strategy, said the government's Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Task Force chairman, Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud.

"The right kind of data is needed to determine this and it needs to be analysed by experts with the right kind of skills to tease out these patterns," he told ST, bemoaning a lack of direction.

"For example, if large clusters occur among workers, is it the workplace or the living conditions or a combination that is at fault? Is there any transmission between workplaces, clusters and localities which are preceded by a lag period, suggesting that the spread has a common link?"