Malaysia Fades in Covid Fight

Competing companies, tardy procurement, low signup rates plague country

Malaysia, which early on in the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus was one of Asia’s leaders, has begun to slip back, with at least some vaccine procurement seemingly diffused among competing parties thought to be aligned with top politicians, ostensibly illegal shots for royalty, low signup rates due to fears of blood clots, and sharply rising new cases.

Malaysia isn’t alone. Cases are surging across much of Southeast Asia, for instance in Brunei, Cambodia, Thailand, and other countries although all are far behind Indonesia and Philippines. With nearly more than 9,000 cases in the past week, Malaysia’s weekly rise has hit 35 percent during that period, according to statistics compiled by the website Worldometer.

The Ministry of Health has been seeking to identify reasons behind low take-up rates and considering steps to boost vaccine registration, plagued by the fact that vaccine doses have been trickling in slowly. Malaysia has vaccinated only 3.2 percent of its population. The government has only recently concluded phase 1 of the vaccination program, involving medical and nonmedical front-liners.

Rising dissatisfaction with vaccine procurement has bled into the larger political scene, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin protected from ouster only by a coronavirus emergency declared by the king, which is expected to last into August amid widespread belief that it was called only to protect him and his shaky and uncertain majority in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat, or parliamentary lower house.

Parti Islam se-Malaysia and the United Malays National Organization, two restive members of his alliance, for weeks have been dropping strong public hints about bailing out – especially since Muhyiddin has been seeking to lure “frogs,” as disloyal UMNO members are called, to jump to his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia to strengthen its pallid numbers.

The king and his vaccines

One of the biggest concerns being spoken of in hushed tones within top political circles is that too many interests are freelancing vaccine purchases. Although there has been no confirmation, sources in Kuala Lumpur say Hamzah Zainuddin, the home affairs minister, and Health Minister Adham Baba are among them.

Then there is Malaysia’s current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, who ascended the throne last year in the country’s rotating kingship of nine sultans and who has become a political force in his own right, not least by keeping Muhyiddin in office through the emergency decree declared on January 12.

Two well-placed sources say Sultan Abdullah went to the United Arab Emirates in January, with the Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein and the Attorney General Idris Harun in tow, apparently to discuss with UAE Prince Mohamed bin Nayan, the king’s classmate in the elite UK institution Sandhurst, the vast amounts of money that sloshed out of 1Malaysia Development Bhd and across the middle east before the Malaysian sovereign investment collapsed in a welter of scandal.

The king and presumably his entourage are said by the sources to have been vaccinated as a favor with the Sinopharm vaccine in the UAE, one of the world’s leading countries in combating the virus along with other oil-rich gulf states. The vaccine has not been approved in Malaysia and is therefore illegal.

Sultan Abdullah, the sources say, was given an additional 2,000 doses for his family and friends to take home to Malaysia. With all of the Sultan’s family inoculated by two physicians – his personal physician Zulkarnain Ishmail, who practices at Gleneagles Hospital in Kuala Lumpur and Hanafiah Harounrashid, a member of the Malaysia Medical Council) – the excess vaccines were used for business partners and friends. The remainder was offered to Muhyiddin and other ministers – all of whom declined, as they were awaiting the Pfizer vaccine in a few weeks.

“The problem started when he instructed that the Ministry of Health issue the yellow booklets to show these people had been vaccinated and possibly allowing them to travel to countries which would accept the booklet,” the source said “Anyway, they would have peace of mind that they were less likely to get Covid than the average kampong dweller. The Ministry had issued about 200-plus booklets to the King’s family and friends and others when the Director General of Health, Noor Hisham, stopped it upon being warned that it was criminal as the Chinese vaccine had not been approved by the government.”

Noorhisham “even instructed a raid on the two doctor’s offices. Only one – Zulakrnain – had the vaccines in his office, I am reliably told. The Ministry of Health wanted to charge him in court but the King and PM stepped in and put a stop to that.”

The two doctors are continuing to administer the remainder of the vaccines in the king’s palace to friends and friends of friends of the king although it now is almost all gone.

“This is a scandal which is being talked about in social circles and at highest levels of government, but no one dares to go public because of the sedition laws and the emergency called by the king.”

Some sources have blamed much of the other problems in combating the coronavirus on the Director General of Health, Noor Hisham, who initially was regarded as being instrumental in keeping cases down but who now is widely disliked in government circles for being dictatorial although his public image remains positive.

‘In a totally dysfunctional cabinet made up of incompetent ministers, he dictates what should be done and what cannot be done,” a source said, adding that his critics say he held off approving the Pfizer vaccine until well after the European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom had recognized it. Now, with a long line already having obtained supplies including Israel, Bhutan, and Singapore, which has vaccinated at least 28.5 percent of its citizens, and with many more competing for it, Malaysia is described by a source as “at the back of the queue.”

The problem is that “rich countries have cornered the Covid-19 market,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, the coordinating minister for Covid-19 immunization, in a prepared statement. “Some rich countries have bought enough vaccines for their citizens three to five times over. Many pharmaceutical companies give preference to rich countries for obvious reasons. That is also why Malaysia has had to balance our vaccine portfolio to include Pfizer, AstraZeneca but also those from non-Western countries like Sinovac.” 

Photo credit: CNN

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