Malaysia sorely needs good leadership in fight against Covid-19, says consultant paediatrician

A senior consultant paediatrician says three recent events highlighted how unprepared Malaysia is in overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic.

Datuk Dr Amar Singh HSS said the events were the proposed amendments to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988, the 100-day Aspirasi Keluarga Malaysia mass event, and the lack of significant improvements in the Parliament building’s ventilation system.

Dr Amar described the attempt to pass the Act which would see a huge increase in fines, and the speed with which it was being pushed, as being “totally unacceptable”.

“Especially when the biggest rule-breakers are those in government, or VIPs, who get away almost scot-free,” he said.

“Fortunately, the enormous public outcry and the receptiveness on the part of our health minister (Khairy Jamaluddin) has seen this bill postponed for, hopefully, a major revision.”

Dr Amar labelled the Aspirasi Keluarga Malaysia event, a four-day ‘carnival’ to celebrate the new Cabinet’s achievements in its first 100 days, as “disgraceful”.

“The government should set an example for the people. Instead, it organised a mass event, attended by over 100,000 people, that could spread Covid-19.

“The numerous messages we all received, inviting us to attend the event – even after it was clear that it was dangerous – and the lack of urgency to shut it down immediately, shows no ‘Covid-sense’ on the part of the government.

“The government failed to absorb the lessons learnt regarding the spread of Covid-19 that many Malaysians already know.”

Dr Amar said he was invited to attend a Parliamentary Select Committee meeting last month to help with a review of the government’s approach towards Covid-19.

This was to identify issues, strengths, and weaknesses, so as to prepare the authorities for future pandemics.

“I support such an initiative, but I am also aware that the Parliament building has not had significant improvements in ventilation. Hence, I offered to do the session ‘virtually’.

“I was surprised to be informed that, due to Parliament Standing Orders, I could only offer my opinions by being physically present in Parliament. There were concerns that online conversations could be recorded.

“I then offered to write my opinions in an extensive, detailed report, but this was also not accepted.”

He said those attending Parliament had been relying on weekly polymerase chain reaction (PCR), or rapid antigen tests, to screen for Covid-19.

“In the Dewan Rakyat sitting in November, 84 infections were identified. If our august house has not had the ventilation significantly improved, or moved to a more online presence, what hope is there for the rest of the country? They (the government) can opt for an expensive measure, like frequent testing, but this is not an option for the average Malaysian.”

He listed several useful measures that included working-from-home, border controls, and cutting down on mass gatherings.

“Any gathering, where food is served, poses a major risk, especially if held indoors, or even outdoors, if the crowd is large enough. We need to rethink our marriages, funerals, and celebrations.

“As the World Health Organisation director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said about year-end festivals: ‘An event cancelled is better than a life cancelled’.”

He said mitigation measures to reduce viral loads included improving indoor ventilation, wearing good masks, and contact tracing.

“Offices, restaurants, food outlets, and supermarkets do not appear to have changed their ventilation, as yet. Schools that have changed their ventilation systems have done so on their own initiative. The communication to the public about Covid-19 being airborne and (the need for good) ventilation, remains poor.”

“In March 2020, the then prime minister (Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin) announced that 10 million masks would be imported from China and distributed to all Malaysians who needed them. The National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) was tasked with using its allocation, provided by the government, to fund this.

“What happened to this initiative, and the allocations for it?”

“Vaccinations are a key component in bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control. While we have had a slow start to vaccinations due to supply issues, we rapidly improved.

“It was impressive how quickly we vaccinated both the adult and the adolescent population. Sadly, this same impetus has not been seen with boosters, due to community concerns about side effects, mixing boosters, and fake news.

“While we are done with vaccinating adolescents, supply of vaccines for children aged five to 11, is expected to arrive in June 2022. This is far too late to protect them, and we should seriously consider using the existing vaccine formulations, at lower doses, with parental consent.”

Dr Amar warned that the Covid-19 pandemic was far from over.

“It is time that the authorities worked closer with the people, and played a more supportive role.

“Humility in the face of the changing landscape of the pandemic is what will see us through. Good leadership is key, and we are sorely in need of some,” added Dr Amar.