SOP compliance appears on the wane in many public areas despite the detection of the ultra contagious Omicron variant in the country, with experts giving renewed warnings of so-called SOP fatigue after more than two years of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Checks by MalaysiaNow at locations such as shopping malls, petrol stations, sundry shops, restaurants, rest stops and cinemas found that many are no longer adhering to health measures especially physical distancing, although the majority continue to comply with the face mask mandate and the requirement to scan QR codes or register manually before entering public premises.
The situation is markedly different from that seen at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when most people were careful to keep a safe distance from each other and to avoid crowded places.
Then, too, entry requirements were carefully monitored at premises with security guards checking temperatures and inspecting the MySejahtera status of those who wished to enter.
Now, though, many appear to be entering premises freely without bothering to undergo checks at the entrance.
Similar scenarios were observed even at clinics administering booster jabs, with crowds of people crammed into small rooms to await their turn for a third vaccine dose.
Public health expert Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh described the situation as an onset of SOP fatigue, where members of the public grow weary of complying with preventive measures.
Sharifa, who is attached to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said contributing factors include the belief that SOP compliance is no longer effective as Covid-19 infections have continued until today.
“People are fed-up after having gone through the movement control orders,” she said, adding that deaths had continued despite the various health measures.
Sharifa said many were also angry about the issue of double standards, where VIPs appear to escape punitive action while ordinary people are punished for breaching SOPs.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin recently raised the possibility of an Omicron wave in Malaysia as is being seen in other countries.
In the US, for example, the daily caseload hit a global record of more than one million on Monday with 1,080,211 new infections detected. According to government modelling, Omicron accounted for around 59% of national cases in the week ending Dec 25 although the rates of death and hospitalisation have been far lower than during previous waves of infection.
In the UK, daily caseloads have also been hitting pandemic highs with 189,213 infections recorded on the last day of 2021.
Khairy said several measures need to be taken to slow the spread of the strain, classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern.
So far, a total of 122 Omicron cases have been detected in Malaysia. Of these, 117 were imported while the rest were local transmissions.
Sharifa said the current events in the country also played a role in causing many to disregard the SOPs.
Giving the example of those affected by the floods which recently swept through areas in a number of states, displacing tens of thousands, she said the priority for them would be food and the safety of their family.
Lee Lam Thye, chairman of the Alliance for Safe Community, said the government should take a psychological approach to the issue rather than coming down hard on those who do not comply with SOPs.
He said the health ministry’s plan to introduce stricter punishments through the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Amendment) Bill 2021 ran the risk of further infuriating the people.
“What can the government do?” he said. “The government can only enforce the law.
“But it should continue taking a psychological approach as the issue of SOP fatigue is a psychological issue.”
He added that the government could resort to legal action if it had no other choice.
Lee did not rule out the possibility of a steep increase in infections if the situation is allowed to continue.
“SOP fatigue is a real thing,” he said, adding that the Covid-19 situation had stretched on for some two years now.
“If this continues, SOP compliance will probably slide even more.”