Judging any government’s handling of an unprecedented public health crisis with major economic, social, and political ramifications isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Here’s a brief synopsis of our full report card for Malaysia’s Covid response.
Malaysia is currently in the worst throes yet of a pandemic that has swept the globe and continued for more than a year and a half. How has the country fared? We take a look at the crisis, both through a purely domestic lens and in comparison to regional and global neighbours.
NOTE: This is a greatly minimised synopsis. Many of the evaluations need to be taken in context for fuller understanding. To read the complete report, please CLICK HERE.
THE GRADING SCALE & CATEGORIES
Like many of us remember from school, we’re using a five-letter academic grading scale that roughly follows the same ranks, both as standalone and comparative measurements:
- A: Excellent, or far above average
- B: Good, or above average
- C: Mediocre, or average
- D: Poor, or below average
- F: Failure, or far below average
To assess Malaysia’s response, we will look at a number of categories:
- Total Cases
- Total Deaths
- Controlling the Spread of the Virus
- Contact Tracing
- Managing the Economic Impact
- Political Concerns
- Social Concerns
TOTAL CASES | CASE RATE
Grade: F (regionally); C- (globally)
While we’re not fans of obsessing over the daily new case count every single day, the total number of cases offers a fair snapshot of how pervasive the pandemic has been in a country, particularly when you look at the cases relative to the country’s population.
Unfortunately, by this metric, Malaysia has failed abysmally, and nearly all of that unravelling has come in just the last few months. As of December 31, 2020, Malaysia had recorded just 113,010 cases. Now, with 1,044,071 cases officially recorded as of July 28, 2021, it’s clear that Malaysia has struggled mightily in the first seven months of 2021.
Factoring in the country’s population of 32.8 million (current estimate), the case rate is 31,823 per one million population (1M), significantly above the world average of 25,142.
Not only is Malaysia the sole ASEAN member to have a case rate above the global average, but its case rate is far higher than any other country in the region. In fact, Malaysia’s rate is more than double that of the number-two ranked country. Malaysia, with the next four ranked regional neighbours:
- Malaysia (31,823 cases per 1M)
- Philippines (14,058 cases per 1M)
- Indonesia (11,713 cases per 1M)
- Singapore (10,925 cases per 1M)
- Thailand (7,764 cases per 1M)
TOTAL DEATHS | DEATH RATE
Grade: D (regionally); B+ (globally)
Officially reported Covid deaths currently stand at about 4.2 million, with the actual number unquestionably much higher. In absolute numbers, Malaysia’s reported 8,551 deaths is a far cry from the staggering death tolls seen in many other countries, such as the United States (627,351), Brazil (551,906), the United Kingdom (129,303), and Mexico (239,070).
Relative to population, Malaysia’s death toll (rate) is also not a global standout: At 256 deaths per 1M, it comes in well below the world average of 537.9 deaths per 1M.
Regionally, however, Malaysia’s death rate is exceeded only by Indonesia’s:
- Indonesia (314 deaths per 1M)
- Malaysia (256 deaths per 1M)
- Philippines (246 deaths per 1M)
- Myanmar (143 deaths per 1M)
CONTROLLING THE CONTAGION
The very nature of a pandemic lends itself to an exponential spread of the disease with time. However, how that spread is handled and controlled, particularly in the initial weeks of an outbreak, contributes mightily to a country’s relative success or failure in mitigating the longer-term effects of the pandemic. Actions taken – or not taken – in the beginning of a pandemic can have greatly magnified effects later down the road.
A four-day religious gathering attended by 16,000 people in the early weeks of the pandemic had dire consequences for the country for months to follow. Additional early mistakes in containment efforts – another religious gathering in Kuching, a large wedding party in Bandar Baru Bangi in Selangor, state-level elections in Sabah – all but sealed Malaysia’s fate.
Through the first full year of the pandemic in Malaysia (January 25, 2020 to January 24, 2021), the country recorded 183,801 total cases. In just the 184 days since then, almost exactly half a year, another 860,270 cases have been logged.
It appears likely that the soaring cases in the last few months come at least in part from the emergence of the much more contagious Delta variant, a mutated form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Unfortunately, Malaysia lacks sufficient genome sequencing capacity to track the spread of this variant with dependable accuracy, so the officially submitted count of 78 total cases of the Delta variant in Malaysia as of July 28 is all but certainly a vast undercount.
Regrettably, whenever cases have risen, the go-to response by authorities here has frequently been the imposition of various restrictions and lockdowns, which have shown few, if any, positive long-term results in mitigating the contagion.
TESTING | CONTACT TRACING
Grade: C (testing); B+ (tracing)
Testing and contact tracing are critical steps in a pandemic, both to effectively gauge the spread and severity of an outbreak, and to mitigate the contagion. But it’s also hard, and owing to that, many countries have faltered on this point, particularly contact tracing.
Testing in Malaysia is distinctly middle-of-the-pack in a global context. Over 17.5 million Covid tests have been performed here during the pandemic, for a rate of about 535,000 tests per 1M population. For comparison, the UK has tested at an impressive rate of 3.5 million tests per 1M, almost seven times the rate in Malaysia.
Regionally, Singapore naturally leads the pack by a substantial margin, hardly surprising given its size and relatively small population, coupled with how poorly almost all the other countries are doing. Here’s how ASEAN countries shake out, ranked from best to worst by testing rates (per 1M population):
- Singapore (2.67 million)
- Malaysia (534,737)
- Brunei (341,534)
- Philippines (148,039)
- Vietnam (120,989)
- Thailand (116,159)
- Cambodia (101,011)
- Indonesia (91,343)
- Myanmar (56,619)
- Laos (41,284)
The launch of the MySejahtera app in mid-April 2020, with a ‘fully baked’ and stable version released two months later, has been an important tool in the fight against Covid. Initially created primarily as a tool to facilitate contact tracing, MySejahtera has evolved to become a near-indispensable ‘superapp’ for Covid statistics, communications, hotspot identification, and vaccination registration and updates.
The creation and deployment of this app – and its massively widespread use (mandated in all but the most rural of areas in the country) – is something we’d count as a true success for Malaysia.
Managing the devastating economic impact of a long-running pandemic has unquestionably been a point of colossal failure for Malaysia. Owing largely to an ill-advised and seemingly scattershot series of lockdowns over the last year and a half, the country has seen at least 150,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) permanently shut down, with the loss of some 1.2 million jobs. The ripple effect has also badly impacted the supply chain for large companies and multinationals, as well.
In addition to not effectively curbing the spread of the virus, the economic results of these lockdowns and various restrictions have been nothing short of devastating.
Industry groups have warned that if Malaysia continues with its inadvisable (and largely ineffective) strategy of imposing lockdowns much longer, half of the country’s SMEs – which comprise more than 90% of all companies in Malaysia – could cease operations.
Malaysia’s projected 2021 GDP has been repeatedly revised downward with each passing quarter, with the latest forecast from the World Bank at just 4.5%.
The only thing sparing Malaysia a failing grade in this category are a handful of economic stimulus measures including subsidies and loan repayment moratoriums.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL EFFECTS
Grade: C+ (political); D (social)
Very little is to be gained for the country by political gimmickry during a public health crisis: The coronavirus simply doesn’t care about your race, your religion, or your political affiliation, so all of the usual triggers in Malaysia’s political scene have largely been rendered pointless by this virus.
Surprisingly, with a few notable exceptions, there hasn’t been as much political drama in Malaysia (specific to the Covid-19 crisis) as you might expect. Critics and opposition politicians have certainly been vocal at times, but, to their credit, most remarks have generally seemed to be fairly levelled, rather than being motivated by virtue signalling or political posturing.
On the social front, the effects of the crisis have definitely been felt more keenly by Malaysians. Depression, suicides, and desperate calls to mental health and suicide prevention hotlines have all increased significantly. The number of suicides has roughly doubled year-on-year in 2021, when comparing the cases so far (468 from January 1 to May 31) to the total number of cases in all of 2020 (631).
The highly publicised “white flag campaign” in Malaysia has had the double effect of showcasing the kindness and generosity of Malaysians – along with resident expats and refugees – while also highlighting the failure of the government to address poverty and meet the needs of citizens adversely affected by policies enacted as a result of the pandemic.
The announcement of Malaysia’s National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, followed by the arrival of the first batch of vaccines in the country on February 21, 2021, was a bright moment of much-needed hope for a country wearied by a year-long struggle against a tenacious and insidious enemy. Malaysia further bolstered the good vibes by announcing it would vaccinate everyone in the country – citizens and foreigners alike – at no cost.
After a sluggish follow-up to the kick-off, though, things really began ramping up in June, and accelerated even more in July. Within weeks, Malaysia’s vaccination rate soared and became one of the world’s highest. On July 27, a stunning 553,871 doses were administered, and Malaysia has now fully vaccinated (both doses) just over 5.9 million residents.
The country has now contracted for enough vaccine doses to effectively cover over 130% of Malaysia’s entire population, and the rate at which doses are currently being administered has exceeded almost anyone’s expectations.
Through July 28, about 38.2% of Malaysia’s population have received either one or two doses of the vaccine; the fully vaccinated (two doses) level stands at about 18%. In Greater KL/Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, and Putrajaya), 61% of residents have received at least one dose.
Given the accelerated pace, Malaysia has brought its goals forward to match, expecting to have enough of the population fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity by the final weeks of 2021. In fact, according to Bloomberg’s real-time vaccine tracker, at Malaysia’s current rate of vaccination, it will take about two more months to immunise 75% of the country’s population.
As the vaccines are widely viewed as the only route back to anything resembling normalcy, the importance of Malaysia doing so well on this point cannot be overstated. If you’re going to get anything right in a pandemic, it should be the thing that will put an end to it.
This report card is not to meant to heap scorn on Malaysia’s government, but rather to provide a balanced assessment of the country’s response throughout the first 18 months of an unprecedented global crisis. There have been some successes, such as the terrific mass vaccination effort, and some failures, like an unfortunate reliance on ineffective and economically devastating lockdowns. Overall, however, we feel it’s fair to say there has been considerable room for improvement.
We applaud the people of Malaysia for their patience, steadfastness, and kindness towards one another. With only a few noteworthy exceptions, the people in this country have shown astonishing goodwill and resilience during a very difficult time and have overwhelmingly banded together to do their part in fighting the pandemic.
The prevailing hope now is that as August arrives, the unnecessary state of Emergency will lapse and fade into memory, the high rate of vaccination will continue, the patchwork quilt of restrictions and bans will stop, and the numbers of severe Covid cases and deaths will drop dramatically as the vaccines’ effectiveness take hold throughout Malaysia.
Stay safe, stay strong, get vaccinated, and
take care of each other.
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