By Hadi Azmi, Noah Lee and Nontarat Phaicharoen
The highly contagious “Indian variant” of the coronavirus has reached the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia, health officials said Monday.
Malaysian hospitals, meanwhile, are dangerously close to running out of beds for COVID-19 patients, with the country recording 60,000 new infections since early April, the Health Department chief said.
“We have detected one case of the [Indian] variant at our international gateway, and so far, we had only seen variants from South Africa and the U.K.,” Malaysian Health Minister Adham Baba said.
Making matters worse is a rise in infections from the other two highly contagious strains.
“We have recorded 10 cases of the South Africa variant in Perak, 10 in Kelantan and 7 in Selangor. Of the U.K. variant, there are two local cases in Selangor, and 1 case in Sandakan, Sabah.”
Malaysia now has 48 infections from the South African B.1.351 strain and eight from the B.1.1.7 U.K. strain.
“The staggering increase of new cases and deaths” has strained Malaysia’s health system, Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah said.
“Global pandemic fatigue is one of the causes of the recent spike in cases. The people are starting to tire, and thus have become negligent in complying with standard operating procedures.”
Noor Hisham also said that 70 percent of beds in the critical COVID-19 wards at state-run hospitals are occupied. The number of non-COVID-19 beds are also 88 percent full, he said.
Private hospitals are already full, said Kuljit Singh, president of the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia.
“In the last 14 days, there has been a steep acceleration of COVID-19 patients in the private hospitals … [they are] occupying all the designated beds in the COVID-19 wards and even the isolated ICU beds are constantly filled up,” the association said in a statement late last week.
“Private hospitals don’t have the same manpower as government hospitals, which have specialists, medical officers and house officers,” Kuljit told BenarNews on Monday.
Private hospital could help the government hospitals by taking their non-COVID-19 cases, thus allowing public hospitals to increase their capacity to handle coronavirus cases, he added.
Epidemiologist Malina Osman warned that the number of active COVID-19 cases in Muslim-majority Malaysia could rise to 50,000 by the Eid festival in mid-May, from around 30,000 currently, unless “some self-regulated” health protocols are followed.
“Social gatherings at private premises or in rural areas are difficult to monitor unless the local community takes proactive steps to prevent transmission,” Malina told the New Straits Times.
“In the long run, it is society that should be empowered to decide what’s best for their health. But we currently lack initiatives to get the ball rolling at the community level.”
Three weeks ago, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said the country was staring at the possibility of a fourth wave of COVID-19. Malaysia has been seeing more than 2,000 new infections a day since then.
Malaysia reported 2,500 new COVID-19 infections on Monday and 18 virus-related deaths. The country has now recorded a total of 417,512 COVID-19 cases and 1,551 pandemic deaths.
Thailand’s COVID-19 Surge
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the COVID-19 death rate tripled to 3.6 deaths per 1,000 cases in Thailand since April, a doctor who is on a government COVID-19 task force said Monday, as the country reported record-high of 31 virus-related deaths.
“Now we are on an upward trend with COVID-19. Last month we had the fatality rate of 1.2 per 1,000 but yesterday it spiked,” Dr. Prasit Watanapa, dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Siriraj Hospital, said during a daily briefing by the national anti-COVID task force.
“If all figures don’t decline but keep going up, that means we are running toward a real crisis.”
This latest spike in infections began in the first week of April at Bangkok’s nightlife venues.
Prasit warned households to practice social distancing and wear masks even at home, in order to avoid infection from family members who may bring in the virus from outside. Lately, many infections have reportedly spread within families, he said.
Bangkok is also seeing major COVID-19 clusters in areas such as Klong Toey, a cramped community of lower-income workers.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha ordered the start of emergency inoculations among some 20,000 people in the community, starting later this week.
Another Thai doctor is worried about the COVID-19 situation in neighboring Malaysia.
“One of the concerns is the spread in Malaysia, especially, the African B.1.351 strain. This strain could lessen vaccine efficacy,” said Dr. Yong Poovorawan, a doctor at Chulalongkorn University, who is also on a government task force on COVID-19.
“We must not let this strain come to Thailand.”
With 2,041 new COVID-19 infections, the country’s cumulative caseload rose to 71,025.
Duterte gets Sinopharm jab
In Indonesia, health officials are worried about the Indian and South African strains of the coronavirus, which have now both been detected in Southeast Asia’s most populous nation.
“There were two new mutations that entered. One from India – with two case in Jakarta – and one from South Africa in Bali,” Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said.
For most of last year, Indonesia led all nations in East Asia in COVID-19 cases and deaths, with the Philippines a close second.
Indonesia reported 4,730 new COVID-19 infections and 153 deaths, taking the total number of coronavirus cases to 1,682,004 and total virus-related fatalities to 45,949.
Separately, Indonesian police questioned the CEO of state pharmaceutical company Kimia Farma after its employees allegedly reused antigen rapid test kits on more than 9,000 passengers at North Sumatra’s Kualanamu Airport.
The police charged five workers from the company, for allegedly violating an article of the 2009 Health Law that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and U.S. $692,672 in fines. They have also been charged under the 1999 Consumer Protection Law and, if found guilty, may face an additional sentence of up to five years in prison and $138,534 in fines.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte got his first COVID-19 jab on Monday evening with the Sinopharm vaccine, Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
“This first dose was covered by the compassionate use permit issued to the PSG hospital by the [Food and Drug Administration],” Roque said, referring to the health facility of the Presidential Security Guard.
The FDA has yet to be approve Sinopharm’s vaccine for emergency use.
Philippines reported 7,255 new COVID-19 infections and 94 virus-related deaths on Monday. The country has a cumulative caseload of 1,062,225 and 17,525 pandemic deaths.
Bangladesh’s Zia has breathing problems
In South Asia on Monday, Bangladeshi opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was moved to a coronary care unit with breathing problems, her medical team said Monday, three weeks after she tested positive for COVID-19 and a week after being checked into hospital for testing.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh authorities announced the extension of a nationwide lockdown to May 16, barring internal travel and restricting movement after 6 p.m., including during activities marking the end of the Ramadan fasting month.
Bangladesh saw a surge in COVID-19 cases beginning late March, reporting record daily highs days in a row.
The country logged 1,739 new COVID-19 infections and 65 virus-related deaths on Monday. It has reported a total of 763,682 cases and 11,644 pandemic deaths.
Jesmin Papri in Dhaka, Tria Dianti in Jakarta and Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.