Don't let Covid-19 halt visa-free entry plan, say experts

KUALA LUMPUR: The Visa Liberalisation plan under the Home Ministry should continue despite an increase in Covid-19 cases in the country, say health experts.

Universiti Malaya Department of Social and Preventive Medicine Prof Dr Moy Foong Ming said that the liberalisation plan which was introduced to Chinese and Indian tourists could continue, however, the government must maintain a tight eye on the Covid-19 situation.

"I think it is not necessary to halt the visa liberalisation plan as the majority of Covid-19 cases are mild currently and there is no increase in hospital admission.

"However, the government should monitor the situation very closely, so that necessary action can be taken quickly."

She also said that the current Covid-19 situation in the country was normal in the endemic phase as any imbalance in the epidemiologic triad - which is the virus, susceptible host and environment - may lead to a surge in cases.

"The increase in Covid-19 cases may be due to the year end and school holidays as more people are travelling.

"Shopping malls and tourist attractions have also become more crowded, which makes Covid-19 being transmitted more easily.

"Also, weakened vaccine immunity, combined with few people wearing masks, could allow someone with the virus, untested and unmasked in crowded areas, to infect others," she said.

Earlier yesterday, the government said that it would continue the Visa Liberalisation plan introduced for Chinese and Indian tourists until receiving guidance on the current Covid-19 situation from the Ministry of Health (MOH).

Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said that the ministry had not implemented any policies at the country's entry points in response to the recent developments in the spread of Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Monash University molecular virologist Associate Professor Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam echoed Dr Foong's views, saying that the virus or any other pathogen would not just be limited to Chinese and Indian tourists entering the country via the liberalisation plan.

"Halting travel from only these two countries won't be effective, there is no need to panic now with knee-jerk reactions.

"I think Chinese and Indian tourists won't be the only tourists carrying Covid-19 or any other pathogens as it may enter from many other sources like supply chains from other countries for example."

He also said that the uptick in cases recently could be attributed to the holiday season and also the circulation of highly transmissible sub variants of Omicron such as XBB.1.16, XBB.1.5 and EG.5, BA.2.86.

"These variants are capable of causing infection and symptoms, especially in vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children, the immunocompromised and those with comorbidities such as diabetes and high blood pressure."

As such, both experts also believe that the public should take necessary precautions in high-risk locations such as crowded and unventilated areas by making sure to mask up, practise hand hygiene and follow proper coughing etiquette.

On top of that, they also proposed that persons infected with Covid-19 be tested, isolated, and refrain from visiting the elderly and vulnerable populations for 10 days following infection.

Last week, a total of 3,626 Covid-19 cases were reported during the 47th Epidemiology Week (ME 47/2023) from Nov 19 to 25, an increase of 57.3 per cent compared to the 2,305 cases recorded from the previous week.

Health director-general Datuk Dr Muhammad Radzi Abu Hassan said 48 per cent of the cases involved were those between the ages of 20 and 4, with more than 98 per cent of them only having mild symptoms.

He said the weekly Covid-19 cases had exceeded 1,000 cases every week from Week ME 41/2023 to ME 47/2023 with an increased rate of between 7.1 to 57.3 per cent.

He added eight Covid-19 clusters remained active and that 121 cases were involved.

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