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It’s Time to Mask Up Once Again, Says Health Minister

Kuala Lumpur shrouded in haze on April 18, 2023 | Image Credit: CNA
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Covid cases have indeed been on a slight rise recently, but this time, it’s actually the haze that’s driving the need for face masks.

If you’ve only moved to Malaysia within the last small handful of years, you’re probably not familiar with the phenomenon known simply as ‘the haze.’ Following a series of horribly bad weeks-long haze events every few years, things seemed to get better following a particularly grim episode in 2015 that stretched across great swathes of ASEAN, including much of Malaysia, southern Thailand, and Singapore. Lasting from June to October, and peaking in September. It was so bad that businesses and schools shut down, air travel was disrupted, and hundreds of thousands of people were stricken with respiratory illnesses.

For everyone in Malaysia — even animals — the years-long respite from the haze was a welcome one. Long-term residents can remember back to two of the other notably bad haze spells in 2005 and 1997. Caused primarily by peat fires in neighbouring Sumatra resulting from illegal ‘slash-and-burn’ methods of land clearing, and compounded by open burning in Peninsular Malaysia, the smoldering fires proved all but impossible to extinguish. The choking haze across Malaysia and large areas of Southeast Asia was so stupendously bad those years, and again in 2015, it brought life in affected areas to a near-standstill, made worldwide headlines, and prompted crisis-level ‘trans-boundary haze’ talks with Indonesia.

The toxic haze of 2015 was among the worst in history | Image Credit: Reuters

Each time, only the arrival of heavy seasonal rains to put out the fires — many of which burn just underground in layers of dense peat — spelled an end to the haze.

Of course, the pandemic put a lengthy pause to most life, including much of the activity — clear-cutting and large-scale burning — that contributed to the haze. For years, residents on the Peninsula were breathing easy.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, the air has been worsening, and officials are predicting it may well grow even hazier by the middle of May.

With air quality readings deteriorating, and in light of the hot weather and haze simultaneously affecting the country, Malaysia’s Health Minister Zaliha Mustafa has made a statement to the public, advising everyone to limit their time outdoors and to mask up.

Dr Zaliha also recommended that people limit any vigorous physical activity, particularly outdoors, during the hot and hazy season as it could increase the risk of illness.

“At the moment, our country is being hit by hot weather, affecting the air quality and ambient temperature in some areas,” she said in a statement issued on Wednesday, April 19.

During periods of haze, Malaysians get very interested in “API, or the air pollution index. API readings of above 100 are considered unhealthy, while levels above 200 are regarded as very unhealthy. Readings in excess of 300 are usually considered hazardous. (During the 2015 haze, numerous readings in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia soared over 300.)

As of 4pm on Wednesday, all 68 areas in the country that have air index measuring stations were reported to have moderate readings of between 51 and 100. On Tuesday, 11 stations had API readings over 100, but none did on Wednesday.

The 2005 haze in Malaysia saw API readings in KL reaching hazardous levels | Image Credit: Wikipedia

In her statement on Wednesday, apart from wearing good-quality masks when outside, Dr Zaliha also advised the public to close their windows to prevent haze particles from entering their homes or buildings. 

The health minister further recommended choosing the internal air recirculation mode when using air conditioning while driving and to drink at least eight glasses of water a day to maintain the body’s hydration level.

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