The government has declared we are moving into a transition phase to becoming endemic, and are gradually lifting restrictions; as have many other countries. However, the World Health Organisation has repeatedly expressed caution that ‘endemic’ does not necessarily mean better or milder and that the pandemic is not over yet. New variants of concern may emerge and some may have a greater ability to evade the protection vaccines currently offers.
We must learn from other countries that have removed most restrictions, especially the mask mandate. The experience from Europe and the United Kingdom is of concern. When restrictions, including the mask mandate were lifted, hospitalisations rose, especially among children.
There is also a growing body of evidence that speaks about the serious effect of Long Covid and the Long-Term health impacts of getting a COVID-19 infection, even in those vaccinated. While vaccination reduces the risk of Long Covid by approximately 50%, it does not remove it completely. Long Covid can be devastating and many scientists now speak of the burden of disability that will come with this pandemic.
Our movement to an endemic phase with relaxation of restrictions and less testing, has made many Malaysians relax their guard. We see more domestic tourism, large groups eating together and packed bazaars.
It is very likely that we will have a significant increase in the number of cases and hospitalisation in the coming weeks; spreading of the virus is very likely happening now. Children under 5 years who cannot currently be vaccinated and children aged 5-11 years who have yet to be vaccinated may be the ones who will be most affected by the next wave. We can see this in the increased number of deaths of children in the recent wave and the huge number of school clusters occurring now.
In addition, older persons, the disabled and those with chronic illnesses (comorbidities), who have yet to receive a booster, will be at higher risk of hospitalisation and death.
Every death due to COVID-19 is a tragedy and possibly avoidable. Behind every death are 8 to 10 or more grieving family members and relatives. The death of a child due to COVID-19 is an unimaginable trauma for parents and families; they are often scarred for life.
I would ask that we move forward cautiously. We must constantly review the data and anticipate the impact of what is coming – for example, the Omicron sub-variants are harmful to children under 10 years of age, as seen from Hong Kong and UK data.
We must continue to protect children and vulnerable adults, and we must do this together as a community. We must not remove our mask mandate. In fact, the data supports that we should upgrade our face mask quality; including for children. We should all be using reliable (not fake) FFP2/KF94 masks. We need to use masks in ALL indoor facilities, during public transport and at any crowded outdoor venue.
Please remember that, while vaccinations have helped extensively, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing harm have yet to come to an end. We have just come out of one wave and will soon be in another.
This opinion piece was contributed by Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS, Senior Consultant Paediatrician. If you have an article or opinion that you would like to contribute for the benefit of everyone, share it with us here.