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27 Jan 2021 10:27
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  •   Home > News > International

    Malaysia, once praised by the WHO as 'united' against COVID, has gone back into lockdown

    The Malaysian Government announces a renewed lockdown across much of the country, banning interstate travel, as daily case numbers hit a new record.

    The Malaysian Government on Monday announced a renewed lockdown across much of the country, banning interstate travel, as daily coronavirus case numbers hit a new record.

    A day later, the country's King Al-Sultan Abdullah declared a months-long state of emergency as requested by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin — the first in half a century.

    Under the emergency, set to last until August 1, Parliament has been suspended and Mr Muhyiddin's Cabinet will be granted special powers.

    "The Government can been said to [be prioritising] the nation's health security at the expense of democracy," Tengku Nur Qistina, a senior researcher at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told the ABC.

    "With the emergency proclaimed, Parliament does not meet and this has been inferred as an obstruction of democracy [by] many."

    Malaysia's health system was at breaking point due to spiralling COVID-19 cases, Mr Muhyiddin said, requiring a new two-week lockdown, referred to locally as a movement control order (MCO), and a nationwide travel ban.

    "The situation today is indeed very alarming. Our healthcare system is under tremendous pressure, more now than at any other time since the start of the pandemic," he said.

    "As I have said before, unprecedented situations call for unprecedented measures."

    But just a few months ago the situation in Malaysia was drastically different.

    Malaysia had fewer than 13,000 cases in early October — only about half of Australia's total.

    At the time, World Health Organization representative for Malaysia Ying-Ru Jacqueline Lo wrote that Malaysia was "a country united in the face of the pandemic".

    "I salute the hard work of Malaysian frontliners, and their services are on par with some highly-developed nations," Atiqah Farhanah, a Kuala Lumpur resident, told the ABC.

    With the announcement of nationwide vaccine rollouts in 2021 she had "thought the prospects would be better this year".

    "My family began to get back out there and even cycle at [the park] every week," she said.

    But by Christmas Eve, Malaysia had surpassed 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

    On Tuesday, the South-East Asian country of 32 million announced a record 3,309 new infections, bringing its total cases to more than 141,000.

    Almost 600 people in Malaysia have died from the coronavirus.

    Political victory for Malaysia's Government came with COVID-19 cost

    The Government enforced a strict MCO between last March and May, banning mass gatherings, including religious and sporting events in the Muslim-majority country.

    The lockdown was enforced by the police and military. Thousands of arrests were made for violations.

    Authorities rounded up hundreds of migrant workers, claiming they were responsible for the spread of the virus.

    "With the first [lockdown] ... I felt that there was a strong national consensus that 'we're going to flatten the curve'," said Mike, an Australian citizen who has been based in Malaysia for 11 years.

    Malaysia significantly relaxed its restrictions after May, however, and held a state election in Sabah in September, despite warnings of a likely spike in cases.

    Many politicians, staffers and voters travelled between Kuala Lumpur and Sabah, on Borneo island, for the polls.

    While the election brought a political victory for Mr Muhyiddin's ruling coalition, he later conceded that it had contributed to a renewed outbreak.

    "Especially in the earlier days of the pandemic, some politicians were not behaving according to standard procedures and basically not setting a very strong example for the public," Dr Suan Ee Ong, a Malaysian public health expert at Singapore-based think tank Research for Impact, told the ABC.

    Mike, who asked not to have his full name published to avoid backlash from Malaysian authorities, said the Sabah election was a turning point for public confidence.

    "[There were] ministers coming from overseas and not quarantining ... from early September, you could really see things unravelling slowly," he said.

    By mid-October, hundreds of new cases were being recorded every day.

    Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing much of Mr Muhyiddin's Cabinet into isolation.

    Since then, a number of ministers have contracted the virus.

    Malaysia's Minister for Women, Rina Harun, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, following Economic Affairs Minister Mustapa Mohamad.

    Several other Cabinet ministers have entered isolation, having been exposed to their infected colleagues.

    The coronavirus pandemic had been a boon for Malaysia's — and the world's — largest glovemaker Top Glove.

    By November, however, the company shut down half of its factories after almost 2,500 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

    Top Glove has been repeatedly accused of labour rights abuses against its mostly-migrant workforce, with the US last year restricting imports of its gloves over forced labour concerns.

    The company has previously said it had "already resolved" alleged labour violations.

    Malaysian authorities lifted remaining domestic travel bans in early December.

    "That, I think, definitely had a part to play in seeing case numbers [rise] because domestic tourism went up, people started seeing family and friends that live interstate," said Dr Ong, who is also a fellow at the Kuala Lumpur-based Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

    'A very bleak picture of COVID-19 pandemic management'

    Almost 50 current and former senior healthcare officials penned an open letter to Mr Muhyiddin last week warning that despite the Government's efforts, growing infections "are not decreasing".

    "Our national metrics paint a very bleak picture of COVID-19 pandemic management. Despite MCOs and other health interventions, the daily reported cases are not decreasing," the experts said, calling for the immediate formation of a national COVID-19 taskforce.

    "Most of our ICU beds are very, very full," Dr Ong said.

    "Even our non-ICU beds are reaching capacity, especially in the major hospitals."

    The letter called upon the Government to ramp up testing, shield the healthcare system by forcing more people to isolate at home, and to expedite approval of the vaccine "so that immunisation can begin as soon as the first doses of vaccines arrive at the airport".

    Malaysia has ordered 25 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and also has a deal to procure the AstraZeneca jab.

    Mr Muhyiddin has said the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations is due to begin in February, with the initial goal of inoculating 40 per cent of the population.

    The Malaysian experts' letter said the Government should "seriously consider" prioritising the vaccination of high-risk groups, including migrant workers and refugees who they said were the "silent epicentres of COVID-19 outbreaks".

    Lunar New Year is in February this year, and while it is usually a major national holiday in Malaysia, where around a third of the population is ethnic Chinese, in 2021 it promises to be a subdued occasion.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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