Thursday, January 20, 2022

Virus spike expected as Malaysians scatter to see off 2020

Hotels report full bookings while holiday destinations are packed with crowds.

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Tens of thousands are thronging beaches and other holiday destinations outside the cities despite repeated warnings to avoid non-critical travel over fears of Covid-19, as many Malaysians mark the end of a challenging year which saw daily life and businesses ravaged around the world.

The increased mobility has been a trend since early this month, when authorities decided to end a ban on interstate travel even as the daily infection rate continued.

Throughout the Christmas season, the Malaysian Highway Authority which reports conditions on all tolled highways has been reporting slow traffic on major interstate routes.

That trend is expected to continue all the way into January, as many families take advantage of the little window of travel freedom they have after a year filled with movement restrictions and the closures of schools, malls and public attractions.

Experts say they will not be surprised if a spike in infections occurs after a long weekend.

“The scenario of a post-holiday spike is expected regardless of the occasion,” Dr Steven Chow, who heads the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners Associations, told MalaysiaNow.

Visitors throng the Padang Waremart in Padang Besar, Perlis on Dec 26 as tourists descend upon the popular shopping destination ahead of the year-end break.

Just a day after Christmas, the health ministry announced a new record of 2,335 more Covid-19 patients nationwide, leading to fears that projections by a US-based research group of twice that number in the months to come could turn into reality.

Daily infection numbers first passed the 2,000 psychological barrier on Nov 24.

Last week, MalaysiaNow reported discussions among top officials to address a scenario of 5,000 daily cases that could stretch hospital facilities beyond their limit if preparations are not made.

This was based on a projection by Washington-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, that daily cases in Malaysia could hit 5,000 by Feb 25 and continue to rise until March 2021.

In the early stage of the pandemic, Malaysian authorities strictly followed a recommendation by the World Health Organization to limit people’s movements, imposing the movement control order (MCO) in March.

But while the model might have been effective in controlling the spread of the virus, it had disastrous consequences on people’s livelihoods, as well as on government coffers as authorities were forced to provide billions in compensation for lost income.

Early this month, Putrajaya, aware that prolonged restrictions on travel activities would further affect the economy, still reeling from the lockdown imposed in March, lifted the ban on interstate travel although maintaining the conditional MCO.

“It all depends on the people. If they don’t follow SOPs, it’s likely to spread.”

But the Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) says the year-end holiday mood might not cause the expected increase in daily infections.

“It has already gone up quite high and I think people have become wary of the fact that it is spreading very quickly now,” MMA president Dr Subramanian Muniandy told MalaysiaNow.

He said the recent spike had caused the public to exercise more caution in venturing out.

“I think if everybody follows the SOPs carefully, the infection rate probably may not go down so much but I don’t think it will rise so high.

“It all depends on the people. If they don’t follow SOPs, it’s likely to spread.”

Checks by MalaysiaNow revealed crowds at holiday attractions such as the beaches in the east coast and shopping centres in Penang.

People play by the swimming pool at the Royale Chulan Hotel in Cherating as holidaymakers kick back at the end of the year.

Hotels have also reported full occupancy, a far cry from the empty rooms throughout most of the year which led to retrenchments and salary cuts.

The Royale Chulan Hotel, among the more premium hotels dotting the seaside resort area of Cherating in Pahang, is seeing full occupancy as year-end approaches.

“The weekend saw 100% occupancy. Our booking is full so far, and bookings in the days to come have already reached between 90% and 100% for the Dec 28-31 period,” said Badrul Rezal Baharudin, the hotel’s resident manager in Cherating.

Streets in Penang were also packed, and checks revealed that most of the island’s beach resorts including five-star hotels are fully booked.

Shops in tourist landmarks around George Town such as Penang Road and Gurney Drive, as well as Padang Kota, Batu Ferringhi and Bukit Bendera have reported brisk business.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh contributed to this report.

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