Covid-19 Exclusives: Tracking Human Mobility in Penang During Covid-19

DESCRIBED AS THE most tracked economic indicator during Covid-19,1 the release of the Google Community Mobility Data has been lauded as a creative means by a tech giant in fighting the coronavirus.2 The information obtained provides an added layer of understanding to how people adjust their movements at different locations during the pandemic.

These locations are grouped under six categories, namely retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces and residential. Mobility is traced in the percentage change of the number of visits made to different places or the length of time spent at home, as compared to a pre-pandemic baseline period (January 3-February 6, 2020).3,4

Since the imposition of the MCO, much of our movements have been restricted; and the number of visits to all public spaces, e.g. retail and recreation, parks, transit stations and workplaces, with the exception of grocery stores and pharmacies, in Penang have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Reflectedly, the time spent at home has clearly increased (Figure 1).

In general, the mobility of Penangites (Figure 1-A) was largely dictated by government interventions through various movement restrictions. But with the passing of time and the gradual relaxation of certain regulations, mobility was observed to be more behaviour-driven, and affected by factors such as public holidays and festivals, and in response to the number of new Covid-19 cases reported.

How Mobility Adjusted to Information on New Covid-19 Cases

To reiterate, mobility to all public spaces was greatly reduced during the MCO. This same pattern was observed during the recently implemented Targeted Conditional MCO (CMCO).5 It is interesting to observe how people behave when more freedom is granted them; and this article explores mobility during the period of CMCO and Recovery MCO (RMCO).

During the RMCO, Penangites’ mobility to retail and recreational places was mainly influenced by the cases reported. But these are not just limited to Penang (Figure 1-A), but involve the neighbouring states of Kedah and Perak (Figure 1-B), and the country as a whole as well (Figure 1-C). This is evidenced in mid-August when the Sivagangga cluster in Kedah became widespread. Mobility was also reduced when community-transmitted cases from the Telaga and Sungai clusters in Kedah were identified.

Mobility plummeted further when the Tembok cluster formed in the Alor Setar prison, and when sporadic cases were reported among Sabah returnees to Penang since early October 2020. The outbreak in the Remand and Seberang Perai prisons coupled with the subsequent Covid-19 community cases, which saw their start from the Bayan and Intan clusters, also exacerbated the situation.

Is the shift caused by Covid-19 in community mobility patterns only temporary, or will there be more permanent structural changes in how we move around?

Residential mobility shows similar patterns. The time spent at home has risen in tandem with the increase of community cases in Penang and Kedah. It rose further still when the Targeted CMCO was imposed. Though also affected by daily reports of cases, the mobility to parks and transit stations was simultaneously influenced by public holidays and festivals, and the weekend effect specifically for parks. To elaborate, mobility to transit stations usually spikes on the eve of holidays, whereas mobility to parks increased on the days of the holidays.

However, visits to grocery stores and pharmacies as well as workplaces were less affected by the rise and fall in new cases; they remained constant even when community-transmitted cases became prevalent. This is mainly because grocery stores and pharmacies are deemed essential services. These locations are also the only places where mobility was above the baseline movement for some days, indicating that visits paid to these establishments were already normalising to pre-pandemic levels.

Panic-buying just before countries worldwide began implementing stay-at-home orders was captured in Penang’s data as well. Mobility to the grocers’ saw a tremendous spike on March 17, the eve of the MCO, rising to 30%, as high as the baseline level within a single day. This trend ceased when the Targeted CMCO was announced, although slight increases of mobility can still be seen.

On the other hand, mobility to workplaces is still lower in comparison, signifying that work-from-home policies have been adopted by some companies, or for certain segments of the workforce. But since the lifting of the MCO, the trend for workplace mobility has been rather stable. People still went into work despite an increase in cases; this suggests that the adoption rate of flexible working policies still has room for growth, and that there is a need to have a business continuation plan in place.

To be sure, mobility changes across Penang during the pandemic were primarily dictated by the movement restriction orders. But it must be noted as well that these changes are behaviourally-anchored – signifying that non-pharmaceutical lockdown interventions have successfully created a form of public awareness whereby people were consciously reducing their presence in public spaces with spikes of new cases.

Self-discipline Matters

But how about the level of compliance to the SOPs in public spaces? On November 5-6, 2020, field visits6 were conducted at a major public park and a shopping mall, where behavioural observations of 140 people in compliance with the SOPs, e.g. the proper wearing of a face mask and registering their visits using the MySejahtera app or logbook, were recorded. In general, the level of adherence to SOPs was satisfactory, recording a rate of approximately 89% (Figure 2).

However, common issues that were most worrying were: i) some did not adhere to the complete set of procedures, e.g. not having their body temperature taken after checking-in with MySejahtera or vice versa, though this may have been done unintentionally; and ii) given the mandatory mask order in public places, everyone in our sample group wore masks but some were not correctly worn; for example, not fully covering the nose and mouth.

Going Out in the New Normal

Until Covid-19 vaccines reach our shores, the pandemic is expected to stay for longer. Minimising uncertainties while maximising the ability to fulfill day-to-day activities as close as possible to pre-pandemic times are achievable aims with the assistance of community mobility data.

All segments of society can play a role in creating a safe environment in this new normal. For the business community, all businesses – MNCs, large companies, SMEs and micro businesses7 – should consider implementing business continuity plans in an effort to reduce uncertainty in relation to mobility and work. Unplanned visits and uncertainties can be moderated by effectuating an “appointment-only” system for customers and vendors. This approach could be a good middle path between the two extremes of closing business premises, or risk overcrowding and fines for failure to comply with the SOPs.

The government, on the other hand, needs to enhance their messaging in both digital and traditional channels, especially with regard to SOPs in different zones. Undoubtedly, the regular updates by the National Security Council, Ministry of Health and the state government’s “Penang Lawan COVID-19” team have shown to be incredibly beneficial to the public. Such messaging can be further enhanced with traditional messaging such as posters and flyers, as this channel will be important in low-income areas and areas with high numbers of senior citizens.

As for the general public, it is extremely essential that strict self-discipline is maintained in adhering to the SOPs, as this will allow for a safer environment for all, and for community transmissions to reduce. In line with the new normal, measures such as social distancing, the wearing of face masks in public spaces and registration via the MySejahtera app at all public areas should be practiced at all times. Strong levels of self-discipline among individuals will lead to mutual trust, and eventually allow for greater increase in mobility.

At the same time, informed decisions can be made with the available information on mobility, to avoid rush and panic buying. As the supply of necessities has been found to be largely uninterrupted, practical decisions on mobility can be undertaken on the eve of the implementation of future movement restriction orders.

Moving Forward

Eventually, as we adapt better to the changes, especially in terms of physical distancing and adherence to SOPs, changes in mobility may no longer serve as an effective method to proxy against (good or poor) social distancing measures. Several countries have initiated reciprocal green lanes, long-term visitors’ programmes and travel bubbles – hence increasing mobility in a systematic and organised manner. Still, the question begs to be asked: is the shift caused by Covid-19 in community mobility patterns only temporary, or will there be more permanent structural changes in how we move around? Only time will tell.

1Nahata, P. (2020). Meet The Pandemic’s Most Tracked Economic Indicator. BloombergQuint.
2Newton, C. (2020). Tech giants are finding creative ways to use our data to fight the coronavirus. The Verge.
3The change in residential mobility should not be compared with the other categories since they are in different measurement units.
4Retrieved from Google’s Community Mobility Reports Help ( topic=9822927)
5On November 7, 2020, the Targeted CMCO was announced to be imposed in all states of Peninsular Malaysia except Perlis, Pahang and Kelantan, from November 9 to December 6, 2020. Later, Kelantan was also placed under the Targeted CMCO from November 21 to December 6, 2020.
6The observations were based on convenience sampling and may not necessarily be suitable for generalisation. Areas visited were not under the imposition of Enhanced MCO or Conditional MCO at the time of visit.
7One of the practical guides for reference for SMEs is “The six-step COVID-19 business continuity plan for SMEs” by International Labour Organization (ILO) (2020). See ILO. (2020). The Six-Step COVID-19 Business Continuity Plan for SMEs no. April: 1–12 (https://www.ilo. org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_dialogue/---act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_740375.pdf)


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