Handphone data shows people venturing out at nearly pre-pandemic levels

·4-min read
Handphone data shows people venturing out at nearly pre-pandemic levels
Handphone data shows people venturing out at nearly pre-pandemic levels

Although the third wave of the Covid-19 outbreak in Malaysia has yet tosubside, Malaysians are already venturing out from their homes more often thanany other time since the movement control order (MCO) was implemented on March18 last year.

Handphone mobility data shows that as of the end of March, it was only twopercent below levels typically seen before the pandemic. The uptick came justweeks before Malaysia started seeing a reversal in its gains against theoutbreak in recent months.

The data was compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics andEvaluation located at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, and isbased on anonymised mobility data from Google, Facebook and Apple.

These tech giants had gathered anonymous location data from their users andprovided it to researchers and policymakers to help their Covid-19responses.

The location data is used as an indirect yardstick for the extent to whichsocial distancing is being practised, which in turn is a key measure forpreventing the spread of the disease.

According to the IHME data, mobility fell to as low as 44 percent belownormal levels following the introduction of the second MCO in some states and territories in Januarythis year, as the pandemic threatened to overwhelm Malaysia's healthcaresystem.

Nevertheless, the rules were gradually relaxed, with one sector of theeconomy after another granted exemptions to continue operations.

Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had said this was done to strike a balance between protecting people'shealth and the economy.

Signs of reversal

By Feb 14, mobility started shooting up over the next few weeks,just a few days before a 10-kilometre limit on travel waslifted because "more activities and businesses have resumedoperations", and the limit no longer deemed "relevant".

This also coincided with a steady drop in the number of cases – only 2,464cases were reported on Feb 14, compared to the peak of 5,728 cases on Jan30.

The Covid-19 effective reproduction number (Rt) that day was 0.89according to Health Ministry data, which is consistent with an outbreak indecline.

Rt is a measure of a disease's infectivity. An Rt of 1.00 indicates asteady increase in the number of cases, whereas any number above that indicatesan outbreak that is accelerating in growth.

Mobility increased from 41 percent below normal on Feb 14 to 23 percentbelow normal by the end of the month. It continued its rise to just two percentbelow the normal level as of the latest available data on March 31, where itwas still on the uptrend, with no signs of slowing.

For comparison, even in the middle of last year when Malaysia had fewCovid-19 cases, mobility was still seven percent below pre-pandemic levels orless.

By late March this year, however, the country's gains against theCovid-19 outbreak was starting to show signs of reversal.

The number of active cases began to grow again, and Rt reached1.00 on March 25 for the first time since Feb 4.

As for yesterday, new cases continued to outpace recoveries, with 1,317 new cases detected and an Rt of1.07, adding pressure to Malaysia's healthcare system.

Malaysians are everywhere

Meanwhile, Google's weekly mobility report provides insight into whattypes of places are being visited by Malaysians during the pandemic.

It shows that movements in the "residential" category arein decline since the beginning of the year, whereas all other categories are onthe uptrend up to April 7, where the latest data is available.

People are spending eight percent more time at home compared to pre-pandemiclevels on April 7, according to Google mobility data compiled by the websiteOur World in Data, which is a declinefrom the 21.43 percent on Feb 14.

Conversely, grocery and pharmacy stores see an increasing number of visits,up to 9.29 percent above pre-pandemic norms.

Retail and recreation, workplaces, parks, and transit stations have alsoseen increasing visits since mid-February, albeit still below pre-pandemiclevels.

For the record, Google mobility data measures the "residential"category by the amount of time spent in such places by Google Maps users thathave consented to share their data, whereas all other categories are measuredby the number of visits by the users to such places.

Hence, the residential data is not directly comparable to the othercategories.

The data presented in Our World in Data is also averaged over seven days tosmooth out sudden fluctuations in the data compared to Google's rawdata.