The Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia and its response


In a first of a series of articles on Malaysia and its role in world health tourism, Andrew Coutts looks at Malaysia’s response to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Malaysia’s response to the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease was swift and effective. Coherent and collective action from individuals, policy makers and practitioners very early into the pandemic proved to be a key factor in the country, with its population of 31 million people, limiting both cases and deaths whilst supporting and then promoting individuals and the economy at large.

The country acted quickly following the first COVID-19 case outside China which was reported in Thailand on 13 January 2020, establishing an effective screening process at all airports. This was followed shortly after by an initial financial stimulus package over nearly £4 billion and a subsequent £46 billion ‘PRIHATIN’ package to aid micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises for employee retention.

Financial packages were further supported by federal measures such as the Movement Control Order enforced in March 2020, and widely adopted media campaigns promoting the hashtag #stayhome, did much to reduce both the unessential movement of peoples and infections. Cross sector collaboration was exemplified by large numbers of Non-Governmental Organizations assisting in the production of personal protective equipment as well as support from both conventional and Islamic insurance sectors who established a multi-million pound fund to assist with COVID-19 testing.

In the early days of the pandemic most companies had their employees working from home; Non-Governmental Organisations took on the immense role of helping to provide food and shelter for the homeless and all educational institutions, schools, and higher education institutions closed their doors to face to face teaching.

The country reported its first COVID-19-positive case on 25 January 2020 and by mid-April the figure had risen to almost 4,500 with 70 deaths; significant numbers but substantially lower than other countries that were following a similar timeline trajectory. These included the U.S. which had recorded 502,876 cases with 80,747 deaths and the U.K. with 73,758 recorded cases and 8,958 deaths.

In part the successful management of the pandemic at its early stage was due to the way that the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Department (Economy), Health Ministry, Finance Ministry and the National Security Council were able to adapt to a very fluid situation. Health screening at all points of entry into the country and the Movement Control Order were enlisted rapidly but so too was the establishment of cross sector collaborations aimed at supporting the growing health needs through financial and logistical assistance.

The Malaysia Health Coalition, established by the collaboration of 38 medical societies was a perfect example of this which supported the effort of the Ministry of Health to ensure the transparent flow of accurate health information.

A dedicated COVID-19 Fund was also launched to assist patients who had been directly affected by quarantine procedures and those without an income received a daily subsistence sum whilst either being treated or in quarantine.

The Ministry of Health also converted the country’s largest convention centre into a 604 bed field hospital and made provision for conversion of indoor stadiums and public halls should they be required; there was also a commitment from 3,000 retired nurses who were prepared to return to work voluntarily.

As a result of early federal intervention; the mobilisation of private and public sectors and most importantly a population who were prepared to follow the rules regarding essential regulations such as the wearing of face coverings and social distancing, Malaysia fought and continues to fight COVID-19 as effectively as an other nation in the world.

At the time of writing, the country was ranked 64th in the world based on the number of positive cases of COVID-19.

As we all look to the future with renewed optimism that a number of vaccines may be effective to stimulate immunity from COVID-19, policy makers and practitioners are moving from a position of maintenance and defence to growth and redevelopment. The redevelopment is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the field of healthcare tourism.

The recent Governmental change in Malaysia has established an Economic Action Council to target economic regrowth. The Ministry of Health has benefitted to the tune of £110 million from the fund and almost £6.5 million has been set aside for work undertaken by the Malaysia Healthcare Tourism Council (MHTC), an increase of 40%.

The confidence placed in the work of MHTC by the Malaysian Government is both testimony to the work undertaken by the Council to date which has seen the country become one of the leading destinations for medical tourism in the world and its perceived ability to act as a catalyst for economic growth as the world reopens for business. A point not lost on MHTC’s chief executive officer, Sherene Azli who said following the recent fund announcement,

“The increase in federal support will further optimise the healthcare travel industry for economic revitalisation and has the ability to contribute up to RM10 billion (£1.9 billion) to the economy as the industry recovers.”

Over the coming months we will examine how Malaysia has taken the niche mantle of health tourism, developed it, and enabled it to become one of the country’s major assets. An asset which has been on pause for much of 2020 but will surely emerge just as strong in 2021.

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