Malaysia gears up for 'endemic' Covid-19 phase

Government officials wasted no time in outlining the need for long-term plans to manage Covid-19, after a year of repeated lockdowns that battered the Malaysian economy.
Government officials wasted no time in outlining the need for long-term plans to manage Covid-19, after a year of repeated lockdowns that battered the Malaysian economy.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - A fortnight into Malaysia's new administration, a tonal shift in its Covid-19 response is perceptible, as the country's new Prime Minister and Health Minister prepare its people for an "endemic" phase of Covid-19, in which Malaysians will have to live with the virus and exercise self-responsibility.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has spent his first two weeks of premiership stressing the fact that viral mutations mean Covid-19 will be around even with a high vaccination rate.

On Wednesday (Sept 1), newly minted Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin wasted no time in outlining the need for long-term plans to manage Covid-19, after a year of repeated lockdowns that battered the economy.

Former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin had hoped to achieve herd immunity with Malaysia's vaccination programme, something which experts say is no longer possible due to breakthrough infections among those vaccinated and the mutating nature of the virus.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin had previously earmarked a reopening of the economy by the end of October after Malaysia had inoculated its entire adult population.

Datuk Seri Ismail and Mr Khairy have stuck to the timeline, but also warn that the virus will now be endemic and that hospitalisations, and not necessarily daily case numbers, should be the country's barometer moving forward.

Mr Khairy, who served as the Science, Technology and Innovation Minister in Mr Muhyiddin's Cabinet, was regularly cited as among the better-performing ministers during the previous administration, whose handling of the pandemic came under heavy criticism. He led Malaysia's vaccination programme, which has one of the highest rates in the world.

Now, as Health Minister, Mr Khairy has been tasked with both the healthcare response and vaccinations.

Days into the job, he has painted a future where regular testing is required, the mask mandate is indefinitely extended, and home quarantines are a norm for those infected with the virus.

"We need to accept the fact that even though we bring this pandemic under control, there will be a time when Covid-19 will become endemic and as such, we must take steps to live with the virus," Mr Khairy said in his first press conference as Health Minister on Wednesday.

He promised more data transparency moving forward, and within a day, the Ministry of Health (MOH) publicly published the Covid-19 intensive care unit bed occupancy rate by state, in a bid to use this as a barometer to measure the severity of the virus.

His remarks were immediately echoed by Mr Ismail, who on Thursday announced the opening of a travel bubble to the northern island of Langkawi, beginning Sept 16. Although full details are yet to be announced, the scheme is expected to be limited to local tourists who are fully vaccinated.

"MOH has been tasked to present a new strategy for pandemic and endemic apart from just compliance with standard operating procedures (SOP)," Mr Ismail said in a statement. Mr Khairy promised broader, easy-to-follow health protocols after Mr Muhyiddin's administration received flak for having too many SOPs and not communicating them to the public in an effective manner.

Health experts said that the move is timely and the shift in messaging would be quickly absorbed by the people.

"The changes are in line with recent scientific evidence that concludes herd immunity is impossible. In my opinion, the public would have no issues understanding the situation," said Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Malina Osman.

Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association president Zainal Ariffin Omar told The Straits Times that experts had suggested moving to a mitigation phase earlier.

"Herd immunity is not applicable to Covid-19. We should aim for higher and total protection," Datuk Dr Zainal said, as he emphasised the need for people to be ready, well informed and fully vaccinated.

Malaysia recorded 20,988 new infections on Thursday, with infections plateauing in highly vaccinated regions such as Klang Valley and increasing exponentially in less vaccinated states.

It recorded 249 deaths on Thursday, with 80 occurring outside of hospitals, a number that Mr Khairy has vowed to address.

The country's ICU usage for Covid-19 patients currently stands at 90 per cent. Some 85.1 per cent of Malaysian adults have received at least one dose of vaccine, while 65.1 per cent have been fully vaccinated.