'Public must brace for longest MCO'

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia should brace itself for the longest Movement Control Order (MCO) yet following the sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in the past few weeks that have yet to plateau.

Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar said a downward trend in cases might only be seen within the next two or three months of these strict curbs.

"The MCO will be just enough to reduce local transmissions and cases. We will need another two to three months for the Covid-19 cases to show a significant decline," he told the New Straits Times, referring to the restrictions that came into effect today.

He, however, said this could only be done if the people continued to follow the standard operating procedures (SOP) with the government issuing clear and logical guidelines to address the spike.

His comments came amid rising non-compliance with SOP in the third phase of the MCO. 

Over the past week, bans on interstate travel had been flouted in anticipation of the Hari Raya Aidilfitri holidays. 

Experts have attributed this to pandemic fatigue and growing dissatisfaction with double standards in enforcement against
the elite versus regular Malay-sians.

Dr Zainal said the spread of infections would still happen unless everyone complied with the SOP. 

He added that people would try to meet up whenever there was an opportunity, especially during Hari Raya this week. 

"This could be avoided if everyone has a high sense of responsibility and is aware of the risks."

Epidemiologist Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud concurred that it would take a while before the spike, triggered by sporadic cases, quelled.    

"It would perhaps take to two three months, but that too depends on whether all mitigation measures run smoothly and contact tracing is reinstated to normal levels," he said, reiterating that the previous trend of declining cases was a false representation due to the dearth of contact tracing. 

He reminded the government that movement restrictions would work only if they were "strict and long enough".

"The MCO buys time for us to recover and take a breather, but it needs to be accompanied by parallel measures. If not, the time bought is squandered and we will repeat this cycle of MCOs, with deleterious effects on the livelihood of people. 

"This is not a balancing act, and the authorities must not take its eye off the ball. Health leads to wealth. It is not a zero-sum game."

He said contact tracing and testing had to be increased to reduce the number of sporadic cases, which are behind the spike in infections.

The Universiti Malaya professor also said the January 2021 Health Ministry directive to reduce contact tracing needed to be rescinded and replaced with a massive effort to trace and test contacts.

 Dr Awang Bulgiba reminded the authorities to watch out for infections among workers with repeated testing and the need to improve workers' living conditions with the implementation of the amended Workers' Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities (Amendment) Act 2019. 

In addition, he said, public health experts outside the ministry should be given access to data and allowed to perform their own analysis of the plans and SOP. 

Epidemiologist and biostatistician Dr Malina Osman, however, said the current MCO may only need to be imposed for four to six weeks as the vaccination exercise would help drive down community transmissions.

She said the economic sectors could also be opened with strict enforcement of the SOP.

"The Department of Occupational Safety and Health should actively crack down on non-compliant employers, whose lax attitudes or workplace conditions are the cause of workplace clusters."

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