Targeted movement control is best way to deal with Malaysia's spike in Covid-19 cases: Experts

Public health experts are advocating a targeted approach without a full lockdown in Malaysia, despite the recent surge in number of cases. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Having set record highs in daily coronavirus cases for two straight days this week, murmurs have grown of an impending lockdown in Malaysia, similar to the one implemented for three months earlier this year.

However, public health experts, economists and top politicians do not believe a repeat of the lockdown - which had devastated the local economy - would be a good solution to the current wave of infections.

Instead, the experts say that a more targeted movement control is the way to go.

On Tuesday (Oct 6), Malaysia recorded 691 new infections and four deaths, including a one-year-old girl in Sabah. The figure was a jump from Monday's 432 cases, which was then an all-time high record.

A bulk of the country's recent new cases was linked to a prison in Kedah and to Sabah, which held a state election late last month. The two states accounted for 616 of the 691 cases reported on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on Tuesday predicted that the number of positive cases will continue to rise in the coming days, but he said that the government is not considering a Movement Control Order (MCO) because of the livelihoods of 15 million Malaysians in the workforce.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin has repeatedly said that the Malaysian economy bled over RM2 billion (S$653 million) a day during the lockdown period and also warned that the banking and financial system was close to collapsing before restrictions were lifted in June.

Bank Islam chief economist Afzanizam Abdul Rashid told The Straits Times: "I think we have learnt that the first round of MCO had a devastating impact to the economy.

"I think we have more clarity now compared with the first round of MCO, when everything was unprecedented in many respects. In that sense, if the government decides to become stricter with regard to human mobility, it's going to be very targeted and localised."

Unemployment in Malaysia shot up from 3.3 per cent before the pandemic to 5.3 per cent in May, at the height of the lockdown. The number of unemployed persons went up from just over 500,000 people to 826,000 in the span of three months.

The country's gross domestic product (GDP) also fell 17.1 per cent during the second quarter of the year.

Mr Muhyiddin announced a raft of measures to provide relief for Malaysians during the lockdown. The key measure was a six-month loan moratorium which ended in September. The administration has resisted calls for a blanket extension of the moratorium, instead allowing banks to offer targeted extensions to those without employment or struggling with their finances.

Public health experts are also advocating a targeted approach without a full lockdown.

"A full-fledged MCO for the whole country may not necessarily slow the spread of new cases as the cases are, for the moment, concentrated in Kedah (Tembok cluster) and Sabah," Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud told The Straits Times.

"Because of the high economic cost of MCO 2.0, I guess the government will try its best not to apply a full-fledged MCO and it will resort to TEMCO (Targeted Movement Control) where necessary. This is likely to continue as long as community transmission can still be mitigated with aggressive contact tracing and isolation or quarantine," Professor Awang said.

However, he warned that the window of opportunity to contain the spread is small and rapidly closing.

"We need to stop the infection from spreading outside the prison walls in Kedah so an all-out effort in contact tracing among prison staff and their contacts needs to be done there," he said, pointing out that the next few weeks are crucial for the country in dealing with the new wave.

The chief of Malaysian Public Health Physicians' Association, Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar, said: "Even though the cases are high, these involve the prison and illegal immigrants. This should not be worrying."

He pointed out that the high number of cases in Sabah can be tackled by active detection and contact tracing, which helped the authorities contain a large cluster in Kedah earlier in the pandemic.

Dr Zainal also said that the government should stop shifting blame to the public for the recent spike.

"Reduce the rhetorics, don't blame the people, and stop sweeping it under the rug," he said, urging the government to admit to weak management of the Sabah state election and the outbreak that it caused.

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