Living in Kuala Lumpur for a very short period of time was just enough to expose me to the contrast between managing coronavirus in the UK and in Malaysia. Each administration has responded to the recent Omicron coronavirus variant in a different way in how it is affecting countries around the world. The UK has a northern hemisphere climate with what appears to be some correlation between its winter season and the rise in cases (variants aside). Malaysia’s infection data appears to lack seasonal changes as it is a tropical climate, but did have a spike in the summer 2020.
Entry restrictions for Malaysia are strict and have signficantly reduced entry except for business and family-related individuals. I had experience of this myself. However, whether or not that has a tangible impact on the infection rate in Malaysia is debatable.
At this time (early February) the infection rate is vastly different in the two countries with the UK coming down from 900 per 100,000 people whilst in Malaysia the rate is rising to over 100 per 100,000. Arguably the UK has a more serious challenge to bring the rate down.
Whilst Britain is swiftly moving towards ‘living with covid’ through removing all restrictions, Malaysia appears to have no plans to remove restrictions other than easing some entry in to the country for foreigners. As the current rate rises in Malaysia the level of fear rises in line with it.
Mask wearing in Malaysia is simply compulsory in buildings and shops with no exemptions except young children, although most of them do wear masks at their parents’ insistence. This rule is followed loyally by people without shops having to use security staff to patrol entrances.
What surprised me was the adherence to wearing masks in crowded areas outdoors. Walking along a busy shopping street I was reminded to wear a mask, as the vast majority of other shoppers were. This, again, is treated as common sense precaution. This I found odd as there isn’t the scientific evidence to support it.
The libertarian approach is in Britain is strikingly different – mask wearing was always indifferently enforced and anyone could just say they had a medical exemption just to avoid weaing one. Wearing masks outdoors was never considered and social distancing outdoors became the preferred rule.
Away from the public I attended a small number of functions indoors (commercial and at homes) where a small proportion of people (including young people) choose to wear a mask. At the largest event (about 500 guests) a desk was set up at the entrance with two uniformed people (with civil police) to enforce check-in and mask wearing outside the hall (although in the hall mask wearing dropped to about a third and guests were eating.
The lack of compliance and enforcement in the UK of wearing masks (the high rate of non compliance on public transport highlighted the issue of the lack of enforcement) begs the question of mask wearing was so inconsistently adhered to, could the rate of infection been more effectively managed through strict enforcement? Probably not as, again, the debate on masks is fierce as a high proportion of people wore coverings that offered meagre protection.
As in Britain Malaysia had its covid app – Mysejahtera. I was impressed how everywhere I went everyone checked in using the app. Even when I moved through places like the Butterworth station and ferry where there is simply a poster with a QR code people adhered to the rule. Before we moved to the seating area (outdoors) at the ferry terminal everyone would stop and scan the QR code – no security officer needed to enforce it.
After an early push during the pandemic the requirement to check in on the UK covid app was abandoned by the whole population – a visible lack of government encouragement and enforcement killed it off. Malaysia got it right – I’m not completely sure how but the population has gotten behind the app but their compliance made it a success.
There’s is a wider debate in the UK about the effectiveness of mask wearing and checking-in to protect against the spread of covid, but the issue here is the failure of the the government to take a clear line on it by properly regulating wearing masks and checking in. Whilst I don’t see the value of wearing masks outdoors, I do see a shared responsibility by almost everyone in Malaysia to follow government regulations.