Workers wearing face masks push empty crates at a fruit market in Kuala Lumpur on May 4, 2020, as Malaysia eases its lockdown measures related to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP)

SINGAPORE – Malaysian businesses may resume operations beginning today (March 4) in a partial easing of Covid-19 restrictions that aims at to revive the nation’s shuttered economy. 

Time will tell, however, if the government has moved too soon in easing amid concerns that relaxing restrictions could give rise to new infection clusters, including among foreign workers.

A movement control order (MCO) has been in force since March 18 which has closed non-essential businesses and schools in a military-enforced stay-home lockdown. The nationwide quarantine, which has been extended three times to date, is due to end on May 12.

Many were thus surprised when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced plans to begin an earlier easing on economic activity on May 1, with businesses given just a weekend to prepare to reopen in compliance with sector-specific standard operating procedures (SOPs) designed to prevent a new wave of infections.

The easing has already been criticized as too abrupt amid concerns that a hasty reopening could undo the success Malaysia has had in flattening its epidemic curve.

The Muslim-majority nation previously had the highest number of cases in Southeast Asia, but movement curbs, mass testing and aggressive contract tracing turned the viral tide.

Daily recoveries now frequently exceed new infections, suggesting that Malaysia is succeeding in containing the pandemic. With 6,298 total cases and 105 deaths, its caseload is lower than in Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, the latter two of which have far higher death tolls.

An airport security officer checks a passenger at the entrance of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, Malaysia on May 4, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Farid Bin Tajuddin

Authorities have justified sending Malaysians back to work as striking a balance between life and livelihood, with the septuagenarian premier himself counting the economic cost.

In a Labor Day address, Muhyiddin claimed the government could no longer afford to sustain the MCO, which he said has cost the nation 63 billion ringgit (US$14.6 billion) so far.

“I realize you are all worried. I am worried too, and in some nations too, when the lockdown ended, the number of Covid-19 positive cases increased exponentially,” the premier acknowledged.

The decision to reopen the economy, he said, was based on advice received from the Ministry of Health (MoH) and best practices as stipulated by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Mohamed Azmin Ali, Malaysia’s minister of international trade and industry and the government’s designated second-in-command, maintains that the decision was taken to prevent Malaysian companies from collapsing.

“If the government did not take this step, the country’s revenue stream will erode, economic growth will be stunted, while business and individual incomes will also be jeopardized,” he said in a statement.

Health professionals, however, have cautioned over the resumption of business, with several of the nation’s 13 states opting out of the easing measures.   

“Many in the medical fraternity were taken by surprise at the speed and extent of the lifting of restrictions and have raised their reservations in the media,” said Roslina Manap, deputy dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the National University of Malaysia and a member of the Malaysian Health Coalition, an apolitical grouping of health professionals.

“We are cognizant of the developments in other countries which re-started their economies and we view these with concern,” she told Asia Times. “Whilst we believe that some risk assessment has been performed in announcing these decisions, there must nonetheless exist a contingency plan that can be rapidly executed should Covid-19 infections start to rise.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Fears of a new surge in cases have prompted six states, three of which are led by state governments aligned with Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, to delay reopening. Sarawak, Sabah, Penang, Pahang, Kelantan and Kedah will reportedly maintain curbs on businesses until the MCO officially expires on May 12.  

Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah has said he expects the daily number of new Covid-19 cases to drop to single digits by the middle of May and has called on Malaysians to learn to “live with the virus.” He estimates that Covid-19 will continue to circulate in the community for up to a year and a half.

While Malaysia has seen a declining number of new cases daily with figures hovering in the double digits, infection rates crept back into triple digits over the weekend – 105 new cases on May 2 and 122 on May 3 – compounding concerns that easing measures may be premature.

Michael Jeyukumar Devaraj, a former lung and respiratory specialist at Ipoh General Hospital, agrees with Putrajaya’s move to reopen businesses, but says the country faces a risk of repeating the missteps of its neighbor, Singapore, which has recently seen an explosive rise of Covid-19 cases in its foreign worker dormitories.

“To give the government its due, most of what Muhyiddin and his team are doing makes sense,” said Jeyukumar, who is an opposition politician and chairperson of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). “They have been smart enough to follow what the health director-general is doing. But the handling of foreign workers right now doesn’t make sense.”

Hundreds of undocumented migrants and refugees, who are not recognized under Malaysian law, were detained in Kuala Lumpur in a controversial Labor Day raid that police said was aimed at preventing them from travelling while movement curbs remain in place.

Human rights groups condemned the raid as a clampdown under the guise of coronavirus-curbing measures. The United Nations, moreover, has warned that fears of arrest and detention could push vulnerable groups into hiding and prevent them from seeking treatment, raising the risks of new community transmission.

“We’ve suggested that there be a moratorium on immigration offenses from now until the end of the pandemic because if we are not able to diagnose and quarantine undocumented workers, it’s a huge shortcoming in our control of Covid-19,” said Jeyukumar.

“Right now, as the law stands, if foreign migrants don’t have proper documents, they’ll get deported. So even those with symptoms will be afraid to come forward for treatment.”

Rohingya refugees wait outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in a 2015 file photo.

Malaysia hosts around 2.2 million documented foreign workers and approximately 3.3 million illegal workers and their families. Many are engaged in informal, low-wage work in construction, security and manufacturing.

Like in Singapore, foreign workers reside in notoriously cramped living quarters that recent experience shows are prone to rapid Covid-19 spread.  

In March, Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob assured undocumented migrants that they could come forward for testing “without any fear” regardless of their legal status. “We won’t focus on their documents, but rather on whether they are positive with Covid-19,” the minister said at the time.

In an about face, Ismail Sabri defended the May 1 arrests as necessary and claimed the 586 detained undocumented migrants had all tested negative for Covid-19 in recent weeks. They are now being held in immigration detention centers.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Asia Times that the May 1 raid amounted to “a human rights and a public health blunder of major proportions” that would deter the millions-strong migrant community from complying with public health screenings, as many have done since the MCO began.

“There’s no doubt Malaysia’s path to effectively combating Covid-19 just got much harder because of these raids. When the Ministry of Health comes seeking to investigate and test for Covid-19, migrants will run the other direction,” said Robertson.

“The crowding in the arrest, transport and processing of those migrants that day was quite clear, and it will get worse in the detention center,” he said. “Malaysia seems determined to repeat the failures of Singapore, which learned the hard way that locking down migrant workers in highly overcrowded conditions will just help Covid-19 spread like wildfire.”

Malaysian authorities say they have not yet detected an infection cluster among foreign workers.

But with the possibility of new Covid-19 clusters emerging due to policy missteps and the efficacy of Putrajaya’s apparently rushed plans to reopen Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy in question, Muhyiddin’s fragile coalition is now in a delicate position.

A man walking past a mural wall painting during the Movement Control Order in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 28, 2020. AFP Forum via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong

The 72-year-old premier took office on March 1 after being chosen by the nation’s constitutional monarch to step in as prime minister following the collapse of the elected Pakatan Harapan coalition amid a tussle for power sparked by an attempted parliamentary coup.

Muhyiddin’s decision to join hands with a scandal-plagued party that resoundingly lost the 2018 general election, however, has led many to question his integrity and legitimacy. But the Covid-19 crisis, some suggest, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for his government’s longevity.

Indeed, Muhyiddin’s relative success in containing Covid-19 and his implementation of a generous 260 billion ringgit (US$59.6 billion) stimulus package to cushion the pandemic’s economic blow has won him a degree of popular support.

“People are singing praises on the government. Social media is buzzing with commendation and tributes to the PM and the government,” said Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod, a political analyst and law professor at the International Islamic University Malaysia.

“There are criticisms here and there…but generally the people are satisfied with the way the new government is handling the situation. The majority of Malaysians [are] warming to Muhyiddin,” he said.

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