No ‘merdeka’ from Covid-19 yet



KUALA LUMPUR: I had hoped that as we celebrate 64 years of independence, we would also be celebrating our freedom from Covid-19, similar to the United Kingdom’s Freedom Day.

That dream will have to be delayed for a few more weeks.

The Malaysian government has lifted some restrictions for fully-vaccinated individuals nationwide, allowing some semblance of normal life to return, such as dining in restaurants with their unvaccinated kids. They can also get a haircut and shop at night markets and weekend markets.

But just because they can do it does not mean they will, and many businesses seem to agree.

There have been news reports of restaurants deciding not to allow dine-ins for the time being. Despite reports of people feeling depressed, stressed and anxious – after being homebound for months, with some reporting loss of income – many are still afraid of utilising their freedom for now.

I visited a few places over the weekend to see how eateries are handling dining in and whether they are enforcing the fully vaccinated ruling on their patrons. However, I found that not many outlets were open for dine-ins.

Most of the places I went to did not check to see if the diner was fully vaccinated before sitting down to eat and drink – perhaps because they only allowed outdoor dining. One place that did allow indoor dining did not ask for my digital certificate.

There were people in the eateries but not as many as during pre-pandemic times or even during the same period last year when daily new cases were in double digits.

Distrust of others, worries about adherence to the rules and insufficient vaccination rates are the oft-cited reasons for this reluctance to dine out.

MyBurgerLab director Chin Renyi told me that they would not be able to enforce the fully vaccinated ruling once they reopen their restaurants for dine-ins, which will probably be on Sept 13.

“If someone logs into another person’s account or takes a screenshot, it’s not my team’s duty to vet it. As I said, my team is fully vaccinated, they’re protected. If irresponsible individuals plan to come out, they’re putting themselves at risk, not so much others,” he said.

However, he said all MyBurgerLab premises will refuse dine-in services to families with minor children for the first month until the data shows there is little danger to children.

He also said his company has taken precautions to minimise transmission within their premises, such as requiring all employees to be vaccinated, improving air ventilation and installing high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters in all air-conditioning units.

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah previously said many places were opening up to save the economy and not because it was safe to go out.

“(It is) not easy to strike a balance between health and economy; lives and livelihoods,” he wrote on Facebook.

Health experts said there has to be evidence that vaccines were also capable of reducing transmission. Due to the Delta strain’s high viral load, it is causing more breakthrough infections among vaccinated people than the previous strains.

Although the vaccine provides direct protection against hospitalisation and severe symptoms, those who become infected are capable of spreading the illness, albeit for a shorter time.

In the Klang Valley, around 90 percent of adults were fully vaccinated as of yesterday, according to the Special Committee on Ensuring Access to Covid-19 Vaccine Supply (JKJAV).

Ministry of Health data has the Covid-19 infectivity rate or Rt value in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor at 0.83 and 0.94 respectively. Any Rt value under one means the epidemic will fade out given enough time.

But six states still have less than 50 percent of their adults fully vaccinated while the federal territories of Labuan, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya and states of Selangor and Sarawak have over 80 percent of their adults fully vaccinated. 

Selangor resident Maizura Zainal Abidin does not think the Rt value in her state is enough assurance for her and her family to go out.

“Even though the four of us are vaccinated, we are not bold enough to eat out yet,” she said. Three of her children are currently waiting for the Covid-19 vaccination programme for adolescents to start while the youngest, who is 10 years old, is not eligible for vaccination.

A teacher and mother of six, Maizura said she would probably venture out again once the pandemic situation in Malaysia improves, such as when the number of daily cases goes down to 10,000. 

Lawyer Nazirah Mannan agreed, saying she did not trust other diners and stores to adhere to the rules. She cited the case of a couple in Klang who went to several restaurants and barbers to see if they could get in despite not being vaccinated.

“I’m worried about such people who will lie. Some anti-vaxxers are using their friends’ digital passports to eat out and the eatery didn’t enforce it (fully vaccinated ruling),” she said, adding that she would only frequent empty restaurants.

“I don’t feel like going out anymore. Because if I go out, I’ll be alone anyway. My friends are afraid that if they dine out, they will come back with the virus and everything,” she said.

This uncertainty over enforcement makes it difficult for people with unvaccinated and vulnerable family members at home to go out. Restrictions may be easing for the fully vaccinated but as far as many Malaysians are concerned, they are not ready to reap the full benefits for now.

Malaysia’s Freedom Day will just have to be postponed till later. – Bernama

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