Southeast Asia is ramping up its fight against the coronavirus as infections spread across the region, with nations locking down cities and sending in the military.As of Friday afternoon Malaysia, t he hardest-hit country in the region, had reported 1,030 infections, Singapore 345, Indonesia 309, Vietnam 85, Thailand 50 and Cambodia 47. However, with 25 deaths Indonesia had the most fatalities. Myanmar has no reported cases, but has preemptively closed its border and stopped its migrant workforce from travelling abroad, despite the cost. From Sunday the Malaysian military will help the police enforce a lockdown on citizens’ movements. The two-week lockdown is approaching its halfway point, but authorities have been struggling to convince Malaysians to stay home. This is despite the threat of six months’ jail for anyone found outside without a valid reason, such as purchasing or delivering necessities, seeking health care or performing official duties.
The government is also urgently attempting to track down thousands of people who attended a mass religious gathering at the end of February. The government believes 16,000 people attended the event at the Sri Petaling Mosque and 600 of them have already tested positive for the virus. It believes 4,000 people who took part are still to be traced, though the organisers dispute that number. Meanwhile the director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, has warned Malaysians that if they do not adhere to the restrictions and social distancing the nation could suffer a “tsunami-like” wave of new infections.
The crisis comes at a particularly awkward time for Malaysia, with the country’s first cluster of infections emerging just as its government was falling apart.The ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition was forced into opposition after the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in late February and a week later the nation’s king selected Muhyiddin Yassin as the new prime minister. The selection of Muhyiddin, who helms the Malay nationalist Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance) coalition angered many Malaysians who had voted in the more progressive Pakatan Harapan.
Barely had the nation come to terms with having a new leader when it discovered its first wholly local cluster of coronavirus infections, with dozens of cases being detected in a group of senior civil servants and lawyers. Then, while Muhyiddin was still selecting his cabinet, another cluster emerged, this time at a mass Islamic prayer event hosted by the Tabligh Jamaat missionary movement.
It was the discovery of this second cluster that prompted Muhyiddin to announce a lockdown – the government’s preferred term is “movement control order” – from March 18 to 31.
The news shocked the public into panic buying in supermarkets and hoarding dry goods. After an interstate travel ban was announced on Tuesday evening, Malaysians scrambled to return to their home towns or cross the causeway into Singapore. Massive crowds formed at bus stations and immigration checkpoints.
A day later in an impassioned plea, Muhyiddin begged Malaysians to “just sit quietly at home”. Many Malaysians are now criticising the government for its perceived inability to handle the crisis, which has caught it largely off guard despite the country having relatively recent experience with pandemics. The nation battled outbreaks of both the Nipah virus in 1999 and Sars in 2003, but experts said both paled in comparison to the coronavirus.
Over a period of eight months the Nipah virus infected 265 people and killed 105, the country’s response having been delayed because it was initially misidentified as Japanese encephalitis. Sars, which killed 774 people globally, claimed two lives in Malaysia. Public health expert Khor Swee Kheng said the coronavirus outbreak was “far more severe”.
“This is for several reasons: Covid-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] has infected many more people than either Sars or Nipah, it has affected many more countries, and the world is more interconnected in 2020 than 2003 or 1999. “This is why we didn’t see movement restrictions in response to Sars or Nipah.”
The lockdown, he said, had a good chance of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus but only if Malaysians adhered to its restrictions. He said Italy had seen positive effects from a similar lockdown within five days. “However, it could take much longer for Malaysia, especially if there are people disobeying the orders. Movement restrictions are not a magic solution, as they have to be paired with testing and contact tracing as well.”
Meanwhile hospital staff say they are overworked and low on protective gear. At least 15 medical workers have been infected.
Malaysians have banded together to send snacks and drinks to medical staff, while some have set up an online aid platform called “Kita Jaga Kita” (we take care of us), matching people who “want to help with people who need help via various civil society initiatives”. While economic activity is slowing, work continues even for Malaysians in “non-essential” professions. Many workers are seeking clarity from the government on how to keep calm and carry on.
“It’s certainly no holiday,” said commercial lawyer Yudistra Darma Dorai. “In fact, we’ve been busier. Clients are concerned about the legal ramifications of the regulations. Much of it is unprecedented and most lawyers are being kept on our feet.” Political economist Khor Yu Leng said the lockdown had prompted concerns over food security and supply chain disruptions. “What measures are farmers and supply chains taking?” she asked. “Producers and processors need to operate effectively and keep supply going. We should prioritise the delivery of essential services and inputs for farmers, fishermen and the food and forestry segments and keep food and related processing operational. “Payments are fine with the banks running, but farmers were not prepared with enough fertilisers and other inputs. Permits and approvals are needed for all related commercial activities to ensure farm incomes can continue and that fishermen can deliver produce.“In fact, the plantations and other corporations with business continuing through the virus lockdown will also be helping in other ways, including resource support for health care providers.”
Activist Jaskirath Kaur criticised the decision to deploy the army, calling the move “disproportionate”. “We need clear criteria as to what justifies military involvement. These threats create more hysteria and panic, especially coming from a government we did not elect and therefore do not trust.”