Rice and dry goods disappeared from the shelves of a Village Grocer in Kuala Lumpur following Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s lockdown announcement, March 17, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia has imposed nationwide restrictions on movement to combat its worsening coronavirus outbreak, a move that has stoked panic and confusion and will severely impact an economy already staggered by political turmoil.

The Muslim-majority nation is now the worst hit in Southeast Asia with 790 cases and two fatalities, both announced just hours before the new restrictions on movement took effect at midnight on March 18. Authorities announced 117 new cases today (March 18).

Malaysians are now barred from all international travel until at least March 31 amid a shutdown of all non-essential businesses, schools and universities, and places of worship. It is the first time in the nation’s history such restrictions have been invoked to tackle a public health crisis.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was sworn-in to office less than three weeks ago when the country had just 29 coronavirus cases, announced the sweeping restrictions in a televised address in the evening of March 16 in an effort to curtail an escalating “second wave” of infections.

“We have seen how drastically the cases have increased in so many countries and we don’t want the same thing to happen here” said the premier. “Therefore, drastic action needs to be taken by the government to stem the spread of the pandemic that may take the lives of our country’s people.”

While health experts have lauded the government’s effort to administer what epidemiologists describe as “flattening the curve” measures, authorities have simultaneously taken flak for causing confusion and panic that has undermined social distancing objectives.

In scenes reminiscent of panic-buying that unfolded in neighboring Singapore when the island-nation raised its disease outbreak alert level, Malaysians descended on grocery stores to clear shelves of rice, instant noodles, canned goods and toilet paper following the premier’s address.  

Malaysian shoppers pick shelves dry on March 16, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Aizuddin Saad

Police were forced to temporarily reverse requirements that those traveling interstate during the partial lockdown first obtain law enforcement permission to cross state lines after snaking queues formed outside police stations.

Muhyiddin’s announcement also prompted a rush for the exits with thousands attempting to flee the country before the lockdown took hold.

“Any travelling right now only enhances spread of the virus and damages the measures that the government has put in place,” said Amar-Singh HSS, a senior consultant paediatrician and former head of the Paediatric Department at Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun in Ipoh, a city in northwestern Malaysia.

Panic buying and associated long queues at stores, he added, “brings together many individuals in a close group and defeats the purpose of social distancing.”

“The virus is now spreading extensively in the community. We can expect to start to see a wave of seriously ill persons in the next two to four weeks and a wave of deaths in the weeks following that,” said the doctor.

He estimates that there are thousands of undetected Covid-19 cases in Malaysia beyond what has been officially confirmed because the country is currently only testing symptomatic contacts, unlike in South Korea where pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people have been tested.

Authorities have so far confirmed two Covid-19 deaths, including a 34-year-old Malaysian man who attended a large religious event held on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur between February 27 and March 1.

Muslims gather at the National Mosque for Friday prayers in Kuala Lumpur, March 13, 2020. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Syaiful Redzuan

Attended by 16,000 people, including 1,500 foreigners, the event is reputedly the source of hundreds of new Covid-19 infections across Southeast Asia. Reuters reported that congregants attending the packed gathering stayed in tents, held hands and shared plates when meals were served.

The mass gathering, hosted by the Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jama’at, is now linked to infections in Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Brunei, the latter of which has alone confirmed at least 50 cases associated with the pilgrimage event.

Nationals from China and South Korea, countries with severe Covid-19 outbreaks, were reportedly among the assembled worshippers.

Malaysia was distracted by political turmoil when the sprawling religious event was held, with then-interim prime minister Mahathir Mohamad the sole official leading the government.

His February 24 resignation led to the dissolution of Cabinet, which resulted in the country going without a health minister for two weeks as Covid-19 cases spread globally.

Muhyiddin’s government came to power following events set off by an attempted February 23 parliamentary coup, whose plotters came under criticism from Malaysians both for toppling the country’s elected government and initiating a de facto putsch during a health emergency.

An activist holds a caricature of Muhyiddin in ‘Joker’ makeup to protest his inauguration as prime minister at an assembly in Dataran Merdeka, February 29, 2020. Photo: Nile Bowie

“This is the wrong time to take over the government. The country has never been in such a state before,” said Mahathir, 94, in a March 16 interview where he expressed doubts that Muhyiddin’s administration will be able to manage the Covid-19 outbreak.

The elder statesmen suggested that the pandemic would deal an economic blow to Malaysia and the wider region worse than the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which saw the Southeast Asian nation’s economy contract by 6.7% in 1998.

Before his ouster, on February 27, Mahathir announced a US$4.8 billion emergency stimulus package aimed at cushioning the impact of the viral outbreak on the country’s tourism and trade sectors, including through a range of tax breaks. Some analysts, however, say the emergency spending was too little, too soon.

“That particular stimulus package was done on the basis of the existing economic conditions of that time,” said Tricia Yeoh, a fellow at the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). “No one could foresee and predict the full extent of what’s happening now. I think we’re already treading into uncharted waters.”

Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister who was until recently Mahathir’s planned successor, said on March 16 that a pandemic-spurred recession is “no longer just a distant possibility” and urgently called on the government to boost February’s stimulus package to widen social safety nets.

“The extent of the economic impact will depend on how long these rather severe drastic measures last, which in turn will depend on how prolonged the Covid-19 situation is as well,” said Yeoh. “All service-oriented businesses will be affected. [But] to say that it will actually lead to an economic recession, I think it’s too soon to tell.”

Muhyiddin’s government said earlier this week that his predecessor’s economic stimulus package, along with all major projects announced under the 2020 budget, would also be executed as planned.

An additional $232 million in funds for workers on unpaid leave, discounts on utilities and other aid measures were earmarked to boost the stimulus on March 16.

New Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

“Muhyiddin’s government will be really hard-pressed to do anything beyond the stimulus package already announced,” said Yeoh, citing crude oil prices plummeting below $30 a barrel in the fuel-exporting nation.

Dividends from state-oil company Petronas are the main source of Malaysia’s non-tax revenue, which amounted to 18.4% of the country’s total fiscal revenue in 2019.

“If the pandemic lasts until the end of the year, I think that Muhyiddin would really need to go beyond concerns over the fiscal deficit,” the IDEAS fellow told Asia Times, referring to the country’s -2.6% of gross domestic product deficit. “The smallest businesses especially will need something to get out of their rut.”

Yeoh stated that while the government is giving serious attention to the Covid-19 pandemic and that the restrictive measures are welcomed, she believes the authorities’ response was “at least several days too late.”

Muhyiddin’s communication strategy, she said, has so far failed to instill confidence and provide clarity in the government’s response.

“It feels like a some of the decisions being made have not been thoroughly thought through in terms of providing the full set of responses from A to Z,” she said. “[His] announcement actually resulted in more questions than answers, which it feels like the communications team have had to scramble to respond to.”

Muhyiddin’s government also faced fierce criticism for its perceived as bungled handling of a National Action Council meeting on Malaysia’s Covid-19 situation on March 17 without the chief ministers of five states governed by Pakatan Harapan (PH), the Mahathir-led coalition which led the recently toppled federal government.  

The state administrations of Kedah, Negri Sembilan, Penang, Sabah, and Selangor represent 40% of Malaysia’s total population, with the latter state near the national capital the most affected by the outbreak with at least 250 cases.

A view of traffic on the Johor Causeway linking Malaysia and Singapore. Vehicles streamed into Singapore on March 17 (L) to avoid Malaysian travel curbs that entered force on March 18 (R). Photo: Dhany Osman

The government’s chief secretary later apologized, saying the failure to invite PH state leaders to the meeting was a “misunderstanding.”

Authorities have since clarified that all state administrations must be present at future national response coordination sessions irrespective of their political affiliations.

A statement issued by the PH coalition had labelled their exclusion from the federal government-led meeting a “narrow partisan act.”