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Still time to impose better anti-Covid measures

This is not about discriminating against China, but about common sense measures to mitigate possible future risks and safeguarding Malaysia's health security.

Collins Chong
6 minute read

The recent argument by Tourism Minister Tiong King Sing, that Malaysia will lose out on at least RM30 billion in tourist dollars this year if it discriminates against visitors from China, projects a chronic overreliance on low-hanging fruits in salvaging our tourism industry and in desperately banking on Chinese tourists as our main source of revenue.

The statement and arguments rang hollow, when he stated that China has been unfairly targeted by being highlighted as a "high-risk" country when many other countries have also topped the charts of Covid-19 infections and deaths, pointing out the US recording 99 million infections with 1.08 million deaths. 

He said China, on the other hand, registered 31,000 deaths with 10.16 million cases recorded, further arguing that with China's 1.4 billion population, the death toll is only 0.00002%. He also asserted that our infection rate is double that of China, with us being 14.8% compared to China’s 0.7%.

All these portray either a lack of understanding or disregard for the reality at play, in being quick to blindly accept the "official data and figures" presented. If we are serious enough to accept China's current Covid struggle as what is presented by the Chinese government in its official case count and death rate, we are either kidding ourselves or remain trapped in our eternal kowtow to Beijing in fear of inciting its wrath.

It almost makes a laughing stock the world over, to see the official data on Covid being released by Beijing on its infection, death and positivity rates, as opposed to the grim reality on the ground that has been witnessed.

It is not about discriminating against China or its citizens. It is about pure common sense in trying to take early preventive steps to mitigate potential future risks and safeguard our own country’s safety and health security. There is a reason why a growing number of countries the world over are stepping up restrictions, not out of sheer discrimination or prejudice against China, but to reduce the severity of the impact and risk to the people.

He portrayed our hypocritical conduct when there is no stricter condition or pressure to impose restrictions on American travellers or from other countries experiencing similar high cases.

The reason why we have not imposed similar strict conditions on travellers coming in from other countries, including the US, is the volume of people and the fact that there is transparency, trust and officially tallied data and details on the Covid situation, backed by global recognition and by WHO.

According to global tracker OurWorldInData, daily confirmed Covid-19 cases peaked last Dec 21 in the US with about 70,000 cases on average. However, China ceased reporting infections last Dec 25, ahead of Beijing’s decision to reopen international borders from Jan 8.

In terms of Covid-19 deaths, the US reported about 449 fatalities yesterday, based on a seven-day average, much lower than the peak of more than 2,500 daily deaths in early February 2022. China claimed zero or fewer than one daily Covid-19 death on average since June, before ceasing reporting since Dec 25, 2022.

The Cabinet has decided against imposing mandatory tests on Chinese travellers, saying only heightened measures including testing for symptoms and wastewater testing will be implemented. It cautions against any discrimination against any particular country.

The lack of the true scale and situation in China, exacerbated by its reluctance to come clean on the true picture, has created a serious and legitimate concern about future potential risks that come with them, and it is not based on China prejudice.

We have teams of experts in various fields related to Covid, public health and infectious diseases management, among many others. Not all share the same argument of us needing to be open-minded and to have no strict restrictions on travellers coming in with high risks of infections. 

Some have pointed out that we must not let the fear of the unknown restrict us in carrying out common sense duties to save the economy and push away the potential huge revenue that comes with this. To counter that, it is really out of common sense and a real fear of the unknown that had, and will in the future, ensure our preparedness level and capacity in managing the unknowns.

Science, data and scientific predictions are as good as they have, but there is no 100% scientific guarantee that any new potential variant that might be created out of this spiralling and out-of-control wave in China will not do any future harm. The warning by WHO on the new XBB1.5 variant or the Kraken hastens our need to be bold and step up measures and not just rely on our secondary front of elevating booster intake and masking procedures.

Symptomatic and wastewater screening are cosmetic actions taken to appease some quarters. It is an open secret that those measures will not help relieve the scale of the after-effects. In Italy's experience, half of the passengers on some flights were affected, and symptoms will not show in their direct form or in the form of rising temperature alone.

China will officially open its border for its citizens starting today. Assuming a 50% positivity rate for travellers from China visiting Malaysia, the estimated 1,200 daily arrivals over this week translate to about 643 imported Covid-19 cases a day – just in arrivals from China.

This adds 1205 to Malaysia’s current reported caseload of 538 daily Covid-19 cases, based on a seven-day average last Dec 31.

Malaysia needs to learn from the early stages of the epidemic in 2020 when steps were not taken to prevent the entry of tourists at risk of carrying Covid-19, contributing to further problems that could be managed earlier with the right meticulous approaches.

The recent vow by Tiong that there will be special additional lanes and more translators and guides for Chinese travellers smacks of blatant hypocrisy, when we have stated that there will be no discrimination or special treatment for any tourists or travellers.

It shows a stark reality of the ineffectiveness of the tourism ministry in coming up with a future-driven, bold, effective and comprehensive strategic plan for reorienting and revamping our tourism industry and strategic planning for our tourism returns, in pivoting away towards an eternal reliance on China as the easiest low hanging fruit for us. 

It makes us more complacent, derives us from the other potential, entraps us with deeper Chinese overdependence, and limits our economic revenue options and heightens our risks. It is high time that we have a paradigm shift with bold clarity in our tourism fraternity and policymakers.

Time remains of the essence. We can still impose measures of mandatory testing on arrival for all arrivals, regardless of nationality. If we can have special lanes and all the additional measures just to support Chinese visitors, surely we can have more resources and support systems to enforce mandatory testing or deeper preventive measures rather than just temperature and wastewater testing, which makes a mockery of our preparedness level.

Memories fade fast but it is crucial to be mindful of past facts and history. One of the most pressing and causal factors of the initial phase of the pandemic was China’s unwillingness to admit and share the truth and data on the spread of the virus, and its efforts to dismiss the severity of the virus and the ease of the spread. Chinese citizens were allowed to leave China freely at that time, but internal movements were curbed, which portrays the flawed and disguised approaches.

If we lack the boldness to take early steps as have been taken by others for the sake of appeasing China and trying not to harm ties, it will signal yet another subdued and fearful move in our forever-China pander and submission at the expense of our larger independent interests and the lives of the people.

It is time for our new leadership to be bold and principled enough to take the bull by the horns, to tell things as they are – and, more importantly, not to repeat the mistakes of others. Our lives and livelihoods depend on that.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.