A worker wearing protective clothes and masks disinfect the interior of a mosque as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19, coronavirus in Kuala Lumpur on March 23, 2020 (Photo by Mohd Daud/NurPhoto)

SINGAPORE – Confirmed Covid-19 infections have more than doubled in Malaysia since unprecedented nationwide restrictions on movement went into effect on March 18, shuttering non-essential businesses and bringing military patrols onto the nation’s streets.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced today (March 25) that his government’s Movement Control Order (MCO) would be extended to April 14, two weeks beyond its initial March 31 cut-off date.

Foreign and interstate travel is banned under the order, and people may only leave their homes for essential shopping, which has brought the economy to a near standstill. Police have so far arrested 110 people for flouting the order.

The trend of new coronavirus infections “is expected to continue for a while before new cases begin to subside,” said the premier in a televised address. Malaysia has confirmed 1,796 cases of the disease, the highest number in Southeast Asia, while the death toll stands at 19, second only to Indonesia, where 58 have died.

Infections have soared across the densely-populated region in recent weeks, though the true extent of community transmission is difficult to estimate due to inconsistent rates of testing country-by-country. Malaysia, for one, aims to more than double its daily testing capacity from about 7,000 at present to 16,500 by April.     

“We are preparing for the worst scenario, but hope for the best outcomes,” Malaysia’s Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah was reported saying. The Muslim-majority country aims to emulate South Korea’s model of rigorously screening both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals.

A worker wearing protective clothes and mask disinfects the interior of a mosque as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus in Kuala Lumpur, March 23, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

Authorities initially measured the public’s compliance with the MCO at around 60%, but that figure has since risen to around 90%. While health experts have lauded those movement restrictions as essential to “flattening the curve” of the lethal viral outbreak, appraisals of Malaysia’s overall handling of the health emergency are mixed.

“Malaysia generally compares quite favorably to a lot of other places,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute. “We’ve seen interventions and transparency in the health numbers. We’ve seen an attempt to try to engage multiple facets of this crisis.

“This doesn’t, however, mean that there are not perceptions that things could be better within Malaysia and that the government could be doing a better job,” she said. “There are constant reversals, problems with communication, and there are problems of distrust. Some of those things would have been a factor for any government, including the previous one.”

Muhyiddin’s weeks-old government, however, has “an extra liability”, says Welsh: “They chose to engage in a power grab when the country was in the middle of a pandemic,” a reference to last month’s political turmoil which saw the country’s elected government toppled in what many saw as a parliamentary coup.

The resultant public trust deficit has been compounded by confusion and contradictory statements. In one instance, Muhyiddin on March 23 urged migrant workers – of which there were 1.76 million legally registered in 2018, with undocumented workers estimated to be more than double that amount – to come forward to be screened for Covid-19.

Undocumented immigrants, including those from the Rohingya refugee community, are among those who attended a religious gathering in late February that has become the region’s largest-known disease cluster.

Some 3,800 of those who attended the Islamic missionary event have yet to come forward for screening and are feared to be accelerating community spread across Malaysia.

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

The premier has maintained that foreigners would have to pay for testing and treatment at public hospitals. But at a press conference later that day, health director general Noor Hisham said foreigners would be exempt from paying medical fees for coronavirus cases at government facilities, in keeping with the previous government’s cost exemption policy.

The Ministry of Health (MoH) also distanced itself from Muhyiddin’s newly appointed health minister, Adham Baba, who was ridiculed following a gaffe in which he dubiously claimed during a live television interview that Covid-19 could be eliminated in one’s digestive system by drinking warm water.

In a sign that partisan politics are still simmering amid the health emergency, several parliamentarians aligned with the previous ruling coalition have said financial allocations for their constituencies have been pulled. Former premier Mahathir Mohammad’s allocation was among those reportedly withdrawn.

“This is traditional UMNO practice,” said Welsh in reference to the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation, which returned to power as a component party in Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) governing coalition. “This is endemic in many of the people who have now assumed office.”

The administrations of five states ruled by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) opposition coalition were also not extended invitations to a national response coordination meeting on the Covid-19 outbreak earlier this month, which the government’s chief secretary unconvincingly claimed was the result of a “misunderstanding”.

“They are hurting the effort they need to actually address the crisis, because many of the states that are led by the opposition are places where the state is highly concentrated,” the academic told Asia Times. “Old practices and very parochial mindsets constrain the way that they can conceptualize the solutions to this crisis.”

Muslims gather at the National Mosque to perform Friday prayers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 13, 2020. Photo: Syaiful Redzuan/Anadolu Agency

In a bid to help those economically affected by the MCO, Muhyddin has opted to allow Malaysians to withdraw a maximum of 500 ringgit (US$114) monthly from their Employees Provident Fund (EPF) pension savings, which would ordinarily could only be drawn from for a serious medical emergency or housing loan repayments.

“One of the challenges that Muhyiddin in particular faces is that it came to power professing to be a Malay government, and ironically it’s the ethnic Malay community that’s getting the brunt of this movement order because many of them are in much more vulnerable jobs, earning daily wages in many sectors that have been closed off,” said Welsh.

Those segments of the Malay community do not have extensive EPF savings, she added, because they are not employed in the formal sector. “And the fact of the matter is this is taken from your retirement. Ironically, it’s letting them take their own money, which is not necessarily all that helpful. This shows Malaysia has a real problem, it has very limited revenue.”

Muhyiddin has granted a 600 million ringgit ($136 million) budget boost for the MoH to hire medical staff and purchase ventilators, intensive care unit equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE) and lab equipment for Covid-19 screenings. Frontline medical staff across the country have faced shortages of protective supplies needed for testing.

“The shortage of the equipment seems to be very widespread, even in major hospitals,” 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. “Somewhere along the line, distribution has not happened.”

Videos circulating on social media purportedly show medical staff at Malaysian hospitals using dustbin liners and plastic bags as makeshift protective gear. The MoH has acknowledged that some hospitals have experienced shortages and has promised to deliver 33 million PPE sets to frontline medical staff within the week.

Malaysian soldier wearing protective face masks at a checkpoint as the military is deployed to help and enforce the people to stay at home during Movement Control Order, Kuala Lumpur, March 22, 2020. AFP Forum/EyePress Newswire/FL Wong

“People are hoping that we’re reaching some sort of curve and going down, but there’s actually no evidence of that yet,” said the retired doctor. Though Malaysia had confirmed cases well before Italy, where fatalities are higher than any other country, “we don’t seem to have entered into the explosive epidemic that they’re having.”

“That is really something that the Ministry of Health should take credit for,” Amar said.

“But, we still don’t know the impact of that mass movement of people carrying the virus,” he added, referring to Malaysians who travelled to their hometowns en masse at the start of the MCO despite explicit official directives to the contrary. “That bothers me. We’ll be able to see the impact maybe two to four weeks down the road.”