The next few weeks will reveal if the country is prepared for a COVID-19 endemic phase, or if it will experience another wave of hospitalizations.
Malaysia has become the latest country in Southeast Asia after Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia to relax its COVID-19 travel restrictions by reopening its state borders and allowing overseas travel, now that 90 percent of the nation’s adult population has been fully vaccinated.
The move allows the country’s fully vaccinated residents to cross state lines to reunite with their families and friends, and to travel abroad without the need for a special exit pass, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a live press conference on Sunday.
Outbound travelers, however, will still be subjected to a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within three days before their flight’s departure from and to Malaysia, as well as 14 days of quarantine upon their return.
Inbound international travel remains largely restricted to emergency, business, and official visits as authorities consider entry for vaccinated travelers from countries deemed as low risk. Efforts to form travel bubbles with Singapore, Indonesia, and China earlier this year were bogged down following the resurgence of COVID-19 cases globally.
The latest easing of measures in Malaysia comes as daily COVID-19 infections hover below 10,000 after hitting over 22,000 cases in August. Weekly mortality rates have also fallen by about 85 percent from 2,344 coronavirus deaths on August 1-7 to 360 deaths last week, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said in an interviewwith local television program Agenda Awani.
Every major pandemic indicator has been falling for weeks, making now the “perfect time” to announce the reopening of state borders, Khairy said. However, he warned that complacency could undo the country’s good fortune as the pandemic still had a long way to run.
Interstate travel has widely been prohibited since mid-January, except for authorized purposes. Earlier restrictions were lifted in December after several lockdowns, but were reimposed at the start of the year as cases soared. By July, the healthcare system was buckling under the pressure.
The country’s accelerated COVID-19 immunization program later that month led to a significant drop in new infections and deaths. At its peak, Malaysia administered nearly 580,000 doses per day, according to vaccination dataprovided by Oxford University’s Our World in Data.
Malaysia is currently vaccinating its adolescents in stages, with the national inoculation rate at 65.2 percent. Six states, however, have vaccination rates of under 60 percent, with Sabah and Kelantan having the lowest inoculation rate, at less than 50 percent respectively.
Some health experts believe the current national share of vaccinated people is insufficient to protect unimmunized groups, such as children below the age of 12, as the country eases its COVID-19 rules. Official data showed that COVID-19 infections among children under 12 were nearly twice the number recorded among adolescents and the elderly in the past two months.
In neighboring Singapore, where 83 percent of its total population have been vaccinated, new COVID-19 cases have climbed from six cases on July 10 to 3,703 cases on October 9, though the majority of new infections have no or mild symptoms given that many have received their jabs.
Highly vaccinated Israel also reported a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases before it started administering booster shots to people aged 60 and over in July. Now, about a third of Israel’s population has received a booster shot, bringing cases down back to a two-month low.
Malaysia is planning to roll out booster COVID-19 shots for people with weak immune systems, elderly people with comorbidities, and frontline health workers, as early as next week as part of efforts to keep infections under control as it learns to live with the virus.
The country has also struck a deal with U.S. drugmaker Merck to buy 150,000 courses of its molnupiravir oral antiviral medication for COVID-19. Clinical data has shown that a five-day course of the antiviral pills could cut hospitalization risk and deaths by about 50 percent.
Molnupiravir is estimated to cost about $700 per five-day course, based on the $1.2 billion the U.S. government paid to order 1.7 million courses of the drug, Statreported.
Malaysia will start treating the COVID-19 disease as endemic by the end of October. The next few weeks will reveal if the country is prepared for a COVID-19 endemic phase, or if it will end up having another wave of hospitalizations.
By : Alifah Zainuddin (A journalist based in Kuala Lumpur covering Southeast Asian affairs) – THE DIPLOMAT