THE Health Ministry’s latest approach to releasing Covid-19 daily case updates along with other metrics, including hospitalisations and deaths, will help lift the “mental weight” off people who have been dealing with the pandemic for over two years, experts said.
They believe it would offer the public a holistic and clearer picture of the situation, as reading the daily case numbers without context had caused public fear, especially when it appeared infections continued to spike despite vaccinations and booster shots.
They added that public engagement and effective communication through clear, transparent messaging across various platforms are central to creating an informed public, tackling fake news and building trust.
Public health expert and epidemiologist Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar described this as a difficult situation. Revealing the Covid-19 data on the same or following day would still invite comments, criticisms and claims of the authorities manipulating the numbers.
“It is a very difficult situation for the government. However, most public health specialists and epidemiologists believe that daily case numbers do not mean much.
“Looking at the single piece of information (daily case update), especially now during the Omicron wave, only fuels fear, panic as well as ‘coronaphobia’ in a small fraction of society,” the former Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association president told the New Sunday Times.
Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin had, on Feb 17, said daily Covid-19 cases would not be announced on the same day they are tabulated, but would be released with other related data the following day.
This, Khairy said, would provide the public with the necessary context and alleviate public concern.
Dr Zainal said daily Covid-19 numbers were volatile due to widespread community infection, testing, reporting strategy and time of reporting.
The most important statistics to look at, he said were the weekly trend of cases, serious cases, hospitalisation and death rates, as well as CovidNow graphs to determine significant spikes and to monitor the emergence of significant variants of interest or variants of concern.
“These must be read along and analysed together to get a comprehensive picture of the Covid-19 situation.
“It is, therefore, important for the authorities to present the data in an easily comprehensible manner for the general public across various channels, including social media. We cannot expect the laymen to analyse data from the ministry’s Covid-19 GitHub or navigate through the various tabs on CovidNow for information.”
This, he said, was also crucial to tackling fake news. Among the matters to look out for were parties who might spread fake daily Covid-19 figures.
He warned that the absence of the daily figures could cause complacency and offer a false sense of security, where the public might assume “the situation is fine” and therefore neglect standard operating procedues (SOP).
Dr Zainal added that it was timely for the government to adopt real risk communication strategies, including efficient media communications, by shifting from fear tactics to advocacy.
“We have called for an independent technical support group for this. The trust deficit in the government is widening and there has been a notable increasing trend in ‘questioning’ the establishment on health matters. These should be addressed.”
“Risk communication is critical. We must continue with advocacy by empowering non-governmental organisations on the ground.
” Most government agencies seem to have a syok sendiri attitude instead of joining hands with volunteers to empower the community in the fight against the pandemic.”
Manipal University College Malaysia Community and Occupational Medicine’s Professor Dr G. Jayakumar said Covid-19 data has to be analysed realistically and objectively.
“The move to release the daily data in a more meaningful manner on the following day is the way forward.
“The absence of the daily total number of cases will prevent undue panic in society.
“Studies show the most effective way to protect ourselves from Omicron is to get vaccinated followed by a booster jab. Malaysia’s vaccination rate against Covid-19 is good among adults.
“The emphasis now is to extend the vaccination to children.
“We should look at other metrics like hospitalisation, utilisation of intensive care unit beds and ventilators.
“Daily information about categories 3, 4 and 5 admission rates and correlated to their age group as well other underlying health conditions should be disseminated.”
Dr Jayakumar said a detailed explanation of the daily data in simple and diagrammatic form would assist the people in comprehending and digesting the data.
He said it had to be explained to the public that the daily case numbers gave little information.
“Though the daily cases are high, admissions to hospitals are low, hovering around 0.3 per cent among categories 3,4 and 5 cases.
“Deaths due to influenza-related causes like pneumonia, road traffic fatalities and mortality due to heart or respiratory disorders are high and worrisome in Malaysia, but are put on the back burner by the public due to overemphasis on Covid-19.
“It is the responsibility of the authorities and the public to prevent panic in the face of the pandemic, as we are on the verge of the endemic stage, like many other infectious diseases.
“We will have to imbibe and practise proper public health measures to combat all these diseases.
“Evidence also shows medical professionals and scientists are perceived as the most credible sources to provide health-related information.”
Dr Jayakumar said in addition to vaccination, preventive measures should focus on reducing clusters at workplaces or social gatherings and enforcing SOP, especially for the vulnerable community like the elderly.