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George Town – first day of movement control ends with mixed results

Farquhar Street in Penang, Malaysia at around 9pm on the first day of the movement control order on 18 March 2020

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The first day of movement control to combat the coronavirus outbreak yesterday ended with mixed results in Penang. Anil Netto shares his observations.

Generally, traffic was much lighter on the roads of George Town last night.

Most shops were closed, apart from convenience stores. A couple of hawkers stalls and a few small eateries were selling ta pau (takeaway) food to customers. But most didn’t bother to open as there were only a few pedestrians on the streets.

The ferries were operating but even less than the usual frequency (which wasn’t much to begin with). Over in Butterworth, two policewomen with surgical masks stood by a roadblock to monitor traffic entering Bagan, peering into each vehicle.

I hear some factories are trying to operate even though they may not be in the essential sectors. Is this true? This is not the time to think of sales and exports. Lives are at stake.

A frontliner in a government hospital I spoke to admitted to being afraid of the risks involved but also complained that the public does not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation. Medical personnel also have to cope with stress as cases keep pouring in.

Penang yesterday had around 30 cases, up from 23 the previous day while the total for Malaysia soared to 790 (up by 117 from the previous day). And two deaths so far.

That might seem high, but in terms of cases per million people for a few selected countries, it is like this for a few selected Asean nations (as of yesterday):

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Thailand – 3
Malaysia – 22
Singapore – 54

This seems to correspond with these countries’ Global Health Security Index rankings, where Thailand is ranked ahead of Malaysia and Singapore for its ability to handle emergency situations. But the numbers in Thailand and Singapore appear to be under control. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for Malaysia, after the sudden spike in new cases since the Tabligh gathering. Until then, we had been coping fairly well.

The figures for South East Asia, however, compare favourably with some of the more developed nations (as of yesterday):

Canada – 16
Australia – 22
UK – 39
China – 56
France – 118
Korea – 164
Italy – 521

But remember, these developed nations probably have the capability to test more of their people than we can, and our figures could rise in the coming days as more people seek treatment, especially after two mass religious gatherings, and the return of students to their home towns and villages.

The developed nations probably have a lot more ICU beds than Malaysia, which has 691 beds in 56 government hospitals (2017), which is usually 90% occupied.

That’s quite similar to Italy’s Lombardy province, which has 720 ICU beds, of which 90% are usually occupied in the winter. And you have heard about the critical shortage of ICU beds in Italy now.

A chart going around online says we seem to be following the same trajectory that Italy took. But remember, Italy was able to test many more people – 826 people per million population. How many have we tested? 10,944 as of yesterday. That’s about 346 people per million people. Compare that with Korea, which has tested 3,692 persons per millon people as at 8 March.

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The blunders and bumbling by the Muhyiddin Yassin-led government have aggravated the situation, especially the order to university students to leave their campus accommodation (which was later reversed). That was a serious blunder, not to mention the requirement for people to head to police stations before they could do inter-state travel. Seriously?

Meanwhile, let’s do our part and make the jobs of the doctors a little easier by staying at home as much as possible.

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