Wednesday September 22, 2021

Failed policies

August 05, 2021

Malaysia’s biggest Covid-19 fear was becoming a mini-India and unfortunately, it has come true. Its daily infection and death counts per capita surpassed India’s peak. At the end of July, Malaysia’s daily cases per million people stood at 515.9 and its daily deaths per million were at 4.95; by contrast, at its peak, India reached 283.50 cases and 3.04 deaths. The country also has the highest per-million cases in Asia, and one of the highest per-million deaths in Southeast Asia.

This is a dramatic reversal of fortunes for a country once deemed the role model in handling the pandemic. Just a year ago, Malaysia celebrated as local transmissions reached zero for a few days, garnering praise from foreign experts, academics, and organisations such as the World Health Organization. The Malaysian government’s swift actions to implement a full-scale lockdown, invest in testing and medical facilities, and deploy proactive communication with the public resulted in fewer cases than in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s director-general of health, Dr Noor Hisham, was given the highest civilian honour and was named alongside the US’s Dr Anthony Fauci and New Zealand’s Ashley Bloomfield as the top health officials in the battle against Covid-19.

But the country’s success was also its curse.

Not unlike India’s early celebration of success, Malaysia was too quick to self-congratulate for containing the virus. The government grew overconfident with the good results of its anti-epidemic measures in 2020 and in August decided to hold a state-wide election in Malaysia’s poorest state, Sabah.

During the campaign period, airlines increase flight frequency to ferry politicians and supporters in and out of the state. In total, 257 rallies were approved and many were held with little social distancing, mask-wearing or adherence to health guidelines. On election day, 1.1 million voters turned up at polling stations.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore found that the Sabah election contributed 70 percent of cases in the state itself and at least 64 percent in the rest of the country.

In the following months, as the number of cases continued to rise, the government engaged in rounds of denialism, stating that the situation was ‘still manageable’ and ‘under control’. Interstate travel was allowed and restrictions loosened in December, although the country experienced a nearly tenfold increase in cumulative cases from October to December.

In January, medical professionals wrote an open letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin about the impending disaster at hospitals if the contagion were not controlled. But government complacency meant little effort was made to avert it. Restrictions were half-hearted and unscientific, and when a nationwide blanket lockdown finally came in June, it could not stop record-high infection numbers, with cases nearing a million – in a country of only 32 million.

Apart from its complacency, the health emergency of 2021 also uncovered the absence of a unified chain of command in Muhyiddin’s government. His cabinet comprises ministers from different parties who are political rivals and therefore, are mistrustful and uncooperative in their collective work.

Excerpted: ‘Malaysia: From COVID role model to a mini-India’