While much remains unknown about Omicron, the newest arrival on the Covid-19 variant scene, experts say any move to reintroduce a form of the lockdown imposed early last year and again this year to curb the spread of the virus would have a heavy impact on the tourism industry which is still struggling to recover from the effects of the previous health measures.
The first movement control order (MCO), implemented in March last year, wreaked havoc on the tourism industry as international and domestic borders alike were slammed shut. Many businesses in the industry which had been one of the biggest contributors to the country’s GDP were unable to survive and eventually closed shop.
Among the worst affected were airlines and hotels, with thousands of workers laid off or told to go on unpaid leave as businesses struggled to cut their losses.
When the government finally allowed state borders to reopen in October on the back of a successful vaccination programme, those in the tourism industry breathed a sigh of relief as, for the first time in months, visitors began flowing in.
Bit by bit, new life was breathed into the sector despite the ban on international travellers remaining by and large unchanged.
Industry players remained optimistic that the government would eventually reopen the country’s borders as well, allowing the return of international tourists.
But such hopes may have to be put on hold for a while longer as concerns swirl over the discovery of Omicron which has so far been detected in over 30 countries including Malaysia.
The variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, appears to have spread quickly and many countries quickly reintroduced travel restrictions in a bid to stop any further expansion.
Economist Mohd Afzanizam Abdul Rashid said it was possible that Malaysia would return to some form of lockdown or MCO.
But the Bank Islam chief economist also cautioned that it was still too early to draw any conclusions about the newest variant as more questions than answers abound.
“It’s possible that an MCO will be put in place. If this happens, it will affect Malaysia’s economic growth as we have seen before,” he told MalaysiaNow.
Yap Lip Seng, the CEO of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, said the discovery of Omicron had sparked anxiety in the tourism sector that the government would indeed resort to such measures again.
Yap himself is of the opinion that a lockdown is not the best approach, citing the last MCO which failed to bring down the number of cases.
“Health experts still don’t know the effect and implications of this new variant,” he said. “So they advise us to continue with the same SOPs such as the wearing of face masks and the use of sanitiser and so on.
“A total lockdown has already been proven to be ineffective and will only jeopardise the economy.”
More prepared this time
Despite his reservations about the economic effect that another lockdown would have, Afzanizam said industry players might be more prepared this time given that Malaysia has undergone several versions of the MCO since early last year.
“We are already living in the new normal – we work from home, we maintain physical distancing, and we follow the SOPs when we are in public places,” he said.
“We definitely have more experience to draw on in facing this newest threat.”
He added that the health ministry has already been stepping up its efforts, citing the speedy detection of the country’s first case of Omicron.
But even if Omicron is found to be less dangerous than feared, he said this did not mean that people should let their guard down as the threat of Covid-19 would remain.
Yap meanwhile said the tourism industry should wait for the full details of the Omicron variant and its effects on international movements.
“We know this already – the tourism industry cannot rely only on domestic travellers,” he said.
“We need to start receiving international tourists again.”
As with the detection of earlier variants, he said, the SOPs remained unchanged.
“People must continue adhering to the SOPs to minimise the risk of infection.”
He added that the current SOPs and preventive measures used in the tourism industry should be enough to curb the spread of the virus especially if they are properly implemented.