Don’t rush in to lift MCO, experts urge govt

Chan Kok Leong

Food delivery riders undergoing Covid-19 tests at the Gombak Land and Mines Office in Selangor yesterday. They are clamours to reopen the economy, which is reeling from the movement-control order. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, April 23, 2020.

PUTRAJAYA should be cautious about lifting the movement-control order (MCO) despite the decline in the number of new Covid-19 cases in the past week, said experts.

They warned that Malaysia should learn from Singapore or Sweden, which backtracked after containing the first wave of infections.

“I don’t think we should look at just flattening the curve and raising economic activity as the primary concerns,” Malaysian Institute of Economic Research senior research fellow Dr Shankaran Nambiar told The Malaysian Insight.

“It wouldn’t help to have an economy with a lot of infected people and deaths as that would raise different kinds of cost and damage.

“Prioritising the economy over people and health caused Singapore and Sweden to backtrack.”

Shankaran said Malaysia made a lot of useful gains with its three extensions of the MCO from March 18 to April 28, but the decision to extend or not should be left to the medical experts and epidemiologists, not economists alone.

The MCO was enforced to break the chain of Covid-19 infections, which have so far infected 5,532 and killed 93.

Phase III of the MCO is set to end on Tuesday.

Health Ministry data show a steady decline of active cases from 2,427 (April 14) to 1,987 (yesterday), with new cases falling to double digits and recoveries outnumbering new cases of infections.

Lingering threat

Universiti Malaya epidemiologist Prof Dr Awg Bulgiba Awg Mahmud told The Malaysian Insight the numbers are improving for Malaysia as a result of increased testing, which is clearing a backlog.

“The backlog of pending tests may have been a source of increased number of positive cases in the previous week but once the backlog is cleared, the true number of infected cases every day can be seen.”

A health worker in protective gear conducting a mass screening for Covid-19 cases in Rawang, Selangor, yesterday. There is a backlog of cases, which explains the fluctuating numbers in the country. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Najjua Zulkefli, April 23, 2020.

The UM social and preventive medicine expert said the MCO has also cut the number of contacts a person has, leading to a reduction in the number of infections.

“This only became evident once the backlog of pending tests was cleared. These two factors working in concert may account for the falling number of new cases,” Bulgiba said.

But the epidemiologist believes the Covid-19 threat is diminished but not over yet.

“Diminished in that the infection rate has fallen but the infections are still there and there are probably still infected people in the community who can infect others.”

Whether the MCO will be extended or not depends on the numbers in the next few days.

“If the number of recovered cases continues to exceed new cases for the next one week, the government might consider easing some of the restrictions but I do not see a total easing of restrictions immediately.

“A programmed easing of restrictions with some areas being subjected to full restrictions is likely to happen,” he said.

MCO ‘helps’ government

Besides cutting the number of new infections, International Islamic University Malaysia’s Dr Tunku Mohar Tunku Mohd Mokhtar believes another extension will ease the pressure off newly appointed Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his government.

“There will not be much space for the opposition to criticise and manoeuvre to discredit the government.

“The extension allows the new government to focus on addressing Covid-19 issues without facing a reinvigorated opposition.

“If the health crisis is handled well, it can help stamp political legitimacy to the current government,” said the political scientist.

On the negative side, Tunku Mohar said a prolonged MCO will further erode the functions of the legislature.

An Alam Flora worker cleaning and disinfecting the Selayang wholesale market, which is closed after cases of Covid-19 were detected in surrounding areas in Gombak, Selangor, on Tuesday. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Afif Abd Halim, April 23, 2020.

Dewan Rakyat is scheduled to sit for one day on May 18 to avoid triggering the six-month automatic dissolution article in the federal constitution. The last time Parliament met was when Dewan Negara ended its meeting on December 17.

Appointed by the Agong on March 1, Muhyiddin’s support is yet to be tested in Dewan Rakyat yet.

“Policies and rescue packages need to be deliberated and debated in Parliament.”

He said the absence of any Parliament sitting means that the opposition has no ability to provide check and balance.

“There will be a loss of transparency and good governance as there is a lack of avenue for the opposition MPs to register their opposition to governments policies.”

No room for austerity

Should the government decide to extend the MCO, it will need to provide more support for households and businesses, said Shankaran.

“It will be a strain on our fiscal position, but it is unavoidable.

“And that is why countries like the United Kingdom is allocating considerable sums to ensure that workers have their jobs and firms are able to stay afloat in this difficult period. This is not a time for austerity.  

“Once some stability is achieved in containing the outbreak, the government should look at a phased approach to opening up. It would be advisable to lift the MCO selectively and gradually as the Ministry of Health can react better in stages.” – April 23, 2020.

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