Malaysia said Friday it would screen all incoming travelers for fever and test wastewater on flights arriving from China, as tourists from that country start arriving next month despite a surge in COVID-19 cases there.
Malaysia’s pandemic-battered tourism sector has been eager to welcome the return of Chinese tourists – up to 1 million are expected in 2023 – but one industry association urged the government to suspend those arrivals until coronavirus cases in China decrease.
“Following the development in China, surveillance at all international entry points will be tightened. Samples of wastewater from inbound aircraft from China will be taken and sent to the National Health Lab for tests and all travelers from overseas, including China, will be screened for fever,” Health Minister Zaliha Mustafa said in a statement.
Those with high fevers, or who are experiencing respiratory illnesses or have COVID-19 symptoms will be sent to quarantine centers or to health officials for additional testing, she said.
As many as 159,232 new cases were detected in China during the past seven days with 472 deaths being recorded, according to the latest update from the World Health Organization.
The surge in cases there has triggered concern from other countries about China’s decision to start reopening its borders on Jan. 8, while dropping mandatory quarantine and all other COVID restrictions for inbound travelers.
Along with Malaysia, the United States, Japan, India and Italy have imposed additional travel restrictions against travelers arriving from China.
On Friday, the Indonesian government announced it was removing all remaining COVID-19 restrictions because of a steady decline in new cases and high immunity among the population of Southeast Asia’s most populous country. Indonesia will not impose restrictions on visitors from China, the Indonesian COVID-19 task force said a day earlier.
“Indonesia is one of the countries that has managed to control the COVID-19 pandemic well and at the same time has been able to maintain economic stability. The gas-and-brake policy that balances handling health and the economy is the key to our success,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo told reporters in Jakarta.
In Malaysia, Zaliha said that along with extra screenings at the country’s entry points, the health ministry would seek to improve detection of any new variant.
“Cases of influenza-like illnesses and severe acute respiratory infections … with a travel history to China in the last 14 days or with any contact with individuals with a travel history to China in the last 14 days, will be tested with RTK-Ag (antigen rapid test kit) COVID-19 test and then genome sequencing if they are found positive with COVID-19,” she said.
Malaysian health workers who are on the frontlines of treating COVID-19 cases and people in high-risk groups, such as the elderly, have been encouraged to take booster shots for better protection.
Moy Foong Ming, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Malaya, said the nation might need to revisit the mask mandate if the upsurge in China cases was caused by a newly mutated COVID variant.
Kuala Lumpur lifted a mandatory mask rule in September as cases in the country showed a significant decrease. Moy noted that while COVID appears to be under control, proactive measures could be needed to prevent another wave.
“Based on the current development, severe cases, hospitalization and death rates due to COVID-19 are low now,” she told BenarNews. “This shows what had been done by our government was effective, but we should be prepared for another surge.
“However, if the government takes the above measures, we may be able to prevent the surge brought in by international travelers,” the professor said, referring to mandatory masks and vaccine booster shots.
Temporary ban requested
On Thursday, Mohd Khalid Harun, president of Malaysia Tourism Agency Association, urged the government to put a temporary ban on Chinese tourists amid the upsurge in COVID-19 cases in China.
Khalid said that a ban was needed to protect the tourism industry, which suffered greatly because of the pandemic.
“The trauma faced by industry players has yet to be resolved. Many have closed their businesses due to COVID, incurring billions of ringgit in losses over the past two years,” Khalid said in a statement to Bernama, the state news agency.
He urged the tourism industry to stop depending on China for now and seek to lure tourists from the Middle East and Europe instead.
Meanwhile, Uzaidi Udanis, president of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association, said the Chinese market ws important to the industry players because of the tourists’ spending power.
“In 2019, 3.1 million Chinese travelers came to Malaysia, bringing significant general income for us. That’s why we are looking forward to receiving them,” Uzaidi told BenarNews.
The two tourism associations are not related.