Preparing for a Covid-19 comeback

By Mohammad Zulhafiy Zol Bahari, Research Analyst, Institut Masa Depan Malaysia.

A rough estimation predicts that this year, approximately 1.2 million tourists from China will be heading towards Malaysia, bringing with them RM3.6 billion in tourism revenue.

As we enter the fourth year of grappling with Covid-19 infections, with many countries transitioning to endemicity, China is among the latest to remove its Covid-19 restrictions: on Dec 7 last year, its policymakers abruptly eased the “zero-Covid” policy, also known as the draconian lockdown measures.

The new XXB Omicron variants have spread rapidly among local communities in China, creating more alarm over the global health emergency. After lifting many restrictions, China is ready to reopen its border but the number of new cases there has skyrocketed, reaching an estimated 248 million people or 18% of the country’s population.

Tourism Malaysia reports that some 3.15 million Chinese visitors visited Malaysia in 2019, making China the third-largest source market for international arrivals. According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the tourism sector contributed to 15.9% of Malaysia’s GDP in 2019. However, the question remains as to whether it is timely for the emerging economic superpower to reopen its border.

Although economists strongly welcome the border reopening, which will allow China, the world’s second-largest economy, to regain normalcy in the expanding economic sector, concerns are that the influx of Chinese tourists into Malaysia could pose a threat to public health as new Omicron forms of Covid-19 could be easily transmitted.

The move may be good for investment and economic growth for Malaysia but must be balanced with public health and safety. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim announced in a news conference after a Cabinet meeting on Jan 4 that it was not essential to disclose pre-departure or on-arrival Covid-19 test requirements for Chinese travellers or other overseas arrivals, despite overwhelming calls and cries for a temporary ban on Chinese tourist arrivals to Malaysia.

How can we be prepared for the influx of Chinese tourists, especially given the reports of surging Covid-19 cases in China? Many countries, including Australia, the US, European nations and Japan, have tightened their travel regulations for Chinese tourists. Australia, for instance, requires travellers from China to present negative Covid tests as a simple prerequisite for entry purposes.

This is consistent with the World Health Organization’s concern about the lack of data from Chinese authorities on the Covid-19 pandemic, including virus genome sequencing data, despite anecdotal claims of overcrowded hospitals and crematoriums in China.

Malaysia must emulate similar moves. The government must implement robust healthcare strategies to prevent the spread of infections by Chinese tourists.

The first approach it must embark on is the prevention of variant transmission. The health ministry and all other relevant agencies or departments must go all out in an earnest drive to get members of the public booster jabs.

Malaysia once achieved herd immunity, with nearly all of the adult population vaccinated with two doses in 2021. However, according to recent health ministry data, only 2% of Malaysians have received at least a second booster dose, demonstrating Malaysians’ poor perception of booster immunisation.

Health experts also recommend that mask use be prioritised, particularly in crowded places like schools, businesses and public transports and transits even if it is not required in such places. One good approach is to provide a tool kit for Covid-19 prevention, i.e. free testing kits to the public.

Malaysia should learn from the European Union’s progress by implementing participatory governance in the health system which incorporates the engagement of medical specialists and citizens in order to explore important techniques in establishing resilient healthcare systems.

To reduce the virus’ impact on Malaysia’s health resiliency, better crisis and healthcare emergency preparedness must be put into place. In cases of healthcare burdens, such as overcrowded public hospitals or medical supply shortages, the relevant agencies must ensure sufficient financial resources for the detection, control and prevention of Covid-19 transmission and to protect medical professionals, healthcare workers and vulnerable groups.

All parties must work together to mitigate the territorial effects of this health crisis. The multi-level coordination between ministries and the relevant authorities needs to be reactivated and reoriented to minimise the risk of fragmented or disjointed crisis responses.

We must be able to draw some lessons in the implementation of recovery strategies to avoid the mistakes made in the past. We must ensure maximum readiness to contain its spread.



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