There and back again: What the Omicron variant means for Malaysia so far

·4-min read
Pedestrians holding umbrellas during rainy weather in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Pedestrians holding umbrellas during rainy weather in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur January 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 6 — The Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus has halted temporarily the plans of many governments to drop pandemic-related restrictions and revive their economies along with their citizens' sense of normalcy.

According to international research, Omicron can be up to 3.7 times more infectious than the Delta variant, which has been the predominant strain so far — supporting the view that Omicron poses a significant threat to public health systems, which could lead to them being overwhelmed once again.

As researchers worldwide grapple with finding out more about the variant named after the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet, Malaysia has had to pull back on hard-won concessions, to the dismay of many of its citizens.

Here is a brief look at how Omicron travelled to Malaysia and milestones that have been backtracked upon due to its emergence.

Sixty-four cases up to Jan 2

The first person carrying the Omicron variant recorded in Malaysia was a non-Malaysian traveller from South Africa, who was tested for Covid-19 upon entry at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) on November 19 last year.

Subsequent laboratory tests confirmed that the individual was carrying the variant on December 2, 2021 and an announcement was made by Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin the next day.

This was followed by an eight-year-old girl from Nigeria, who was confirmed to be the second case with the Omicron variant, on December 16, after she was tested at KLIA two weeks earlier.

Since then, 122 cases involving the Omicron variant have been confirmed by the Ministry of Health (MoH), up to January 4.

The majority of cases are classified as “imported” — detected from people entering Malaysia from abroad.

There have been only five local infections to date: one in Sarawak and four in Kedah.

Halt on shift to treating Covid-19 as endemic

As vaccination rates in Malaysia edged towards encompassing 90 per cent of adults last year, the government said that it would begin treating the Covid-19 pandemic as an endemic disease — meaning that it is to be seen as native to Malaysia — which was to lead to looser restrictions.

This was announced by Khairy on September 1.

However, this aspiration for a ‘new normal’ lifestyle was put on hold as of November 31, when the government stated that it had hit the ‘pause’ button to monitor the emergence of Omicron.

"If we don't monitor Omicron closely, then how are we supposed to deal with it?" asked senior minister in charge of security, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, as he made the announcement.

Travel restrictions

After 90 per cent of adults in Malaysia were fully vaccinated as of October 10, 2021, Putrajaya decided to open up interstate travel and international travel to the masses.

While this move has largely remained intact, Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore were forced to backtrack on travel-related concessions, affecting thousands of Malaysians.

The Malaysia-Singapore Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL), launched on November 29, 2021, reunited countless families as fully vaccinated Malaysians and Singaporeans were once again allowed to travel easily between the two countries.

However, as Singapore became embattled with a surge in Omicron and imported Covid-19 cases, the island nation’s government announced that it was freezing all VTL passes on December 22, 2021 — effective December 23, 2021 to January 20, 2022.

Similarly, travel for the Islamic pilgrimage of Umrah to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which Malaysia resumed in October last year, is set to be suspended indefinitely from January 8, due to a high rate of Omicron transmissibility in the Middle Eastern country.

Booster shots

When Malaysia began its vaccination drive in January last year, Malaysians were told by government officials and experts alike that the goal was to reach “herd immunity” after a majority of the population took the required two, or one dose of their respective vaccine.

Yet, with the emergence of the Delta variant and newer data on vaccine efficacy rates, authorities began touting a third “booster” shot as necessary, saying that vaccine efficacy rates drop significantly over a span of three to six months.

Finally, with Omicron cases in Malaysia on the rise, Khairy announced on December 27, 2021 that there would be no guarantee Covid-19 vaccinations would stop at three doses, and has since revealed that his ministry is studying the need for a fourth shot.

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