Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask during the opening ceremony of the third term of the 14th parliamentary session in Kuala Lumpur on May 18, 2020. Photo: Nazri Rapaai / Malaysia's Department of Information / AFP

SINGAPORE – A record rise in Covid-19 infections in Malaysia is piling pressure on Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and members of his Cabinet, with public anger mounting over a soaring caseload that began to multiply after politicians and voters returned from the state of Sabah where polls were held last month.

The uptick of coronavirus cases and deaths is a blight on what until now had been regarded as an effective overall pandemic response, one that had bolstered Muhyiddin’s popularity. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, meanwhile, has signaled that he is not letting up on a bid to unseat the premier’s eight-month-old government. 

Grappling with the highest number of infected patients under treatment since the start of the pandemic in January, health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah declared on October 8 that the country had entered a “third wave” and called on Malaysians to do their part to flatten the curve by staying indoors and adhering to existing health protocols.

Spiraling infection rates in urban centers across Malaysia have been traced to individuals with recent travel history to Sabah, which has become the epicenter of the new outbreak with hundreds of daily cases reported. Multiple clusters have since emerged at schools, universities, shopping malls and government offices nationwide.

That includes the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya. Muhyiddin, along with 13 ministers and deputy ministers, began a 14-day home quarantine on October 5 after it was learned that Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, who two days earlier had attended a high-level meeting chaired by the premier, contracted Covid-19.

Malaysia’s Mufti Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri in a 2018 file photo. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

The 73-year-old premier has tested negative for the coronavirus. Daily case tallies have fluctuated since early September between the low double to the high triple-digit range more recently, with 16 deaths – including a one-year-old girl in Sabah – since the beginning of October. The national total stands at 14,722 cases with 152 deaths.

Muhyiddin’s government has drawn criticism for not enforcing a mandatory two-week quarantine for those returning from Malaysia’s easternmost state, where an election was held on September 26. After visiting Sabah to campaign, Zulkifli resumed a packed schedule that saw him attend official events in a number of states across the western peninsula.

This was the latest in a string of controversies involving ministers flouting health protocols. In a special address on Covid-19 delivered from his home, Muhyiddin sought to acknowledge a perceived as uneven enforcement standard between politicians and scores of ordinary people who have been hit with steep fines or jail terms for similar offenses in recent months.

“There is a sense that the individuals in government didn’t follow the SOPs (standard operation procedures) and this is where they are really facing serious questions from the public – and the anger is palpable,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Asia Research Institute.

Referring to himself as “abah”, an affectionate Malay term for the word “father”, Muhyiddin denied any enforcement “double standards” and said action would be taken against lawmakers who breached the rules, joking that he would have to use a rattan cane that parents in Southeast Asian households typically use to discipline their children.

Malaysians on social media, though, showed little will for laughter as a #MuhyiddinOut hashtag began trending on Twitter following his October 6 telecast, the same day Malaysia saw a record high 691 new cases. Others faulted the government for going ahead with state elections in Sabah when the pandemic posed a clear public health threat.

The premier attributed the nationwide rise in cases to undocumented migrants who entered the country “illegally” through Sabah, as well as infected prisoners jailed at detention centers in Kedah state who spread the virus to prison staff. But laxity in adherence to health protocols during the campaign had also been a factor, he said.

“I admit the campaigning for Sabah elections is among the reasons for the recent spike of cases,” said Muhyiddin during his address, conceding that procedures for campaigning established by the country’s Election Commission, including observing safe distancing and wearing face masks, had not been properly adhered to.

Malaysians in line to vote at Sabah’s recent election. Image: Facebook

“The majority of cases are due to lax attitudes towards SOPs,” said Dr Sharifa Ezat Wan Puteh, a professor of health economics and public health at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). “In many ways, the level of vigilance has decreased among the public after the MCO (Movement Control Order) was lifted.”

Malaysia imposed a nationwide lockdown, or MCO, in March in the wake of the country’s second wave, which saw cases linked to religious gatherings. Authorities began gradually allowing economic sectors to reopen in May. Restrictions on nearly all activities were further eased in June without significant ill-effect – that is, until the recent uptick.

Active cases are now over two times higher than they were during the height of the second wave, though authorities have ruled out a second national lockdown on the grounds it would cause irreparable economic damage. Targeted lockdowns have instead gone into effect in areas with high rates of contagion, including several localities in Sabah.

An estimated 2.4 billion ringgit (US$550 million) in daily losses occurred during the nationwide MCO earlier this year, amounting for total losses of 63 billion ringgit (US$14.6 billion). Malaysia’s economy went on to record a sharp 17.1% contraction in the second quarter from April to June, its worst downturn since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.  

“Malaysia cannot afford another MCO. It will break the country economically. Entire sections of the hospitality industry, airlines and even universities are at a standstill,” said Dr Marzida Mansor, president of the Malaysian Society of Anaesthesiologists, who advised that the government should opt for precautionary alternatives to a national lockdown.

“Interstate travel bans are a foregone conclusion if certain states show an exponential rise, especially now Kedah and Sabah. Australia did the same when almost all states banned travel to Victoria. Malaysia will have to do whatever it takes to stop the pandemic taking further hold in this country,” she told Asia Times.

The Southeast Asian nation has so far managed to avoid a major outbreak on the scale seen in the Philippines and Indonesia, which have 334,770 and 324,658 cases respectively and exceedingly higher death tolls. Public health experts say Malaysia is well-positioned to use knowledge gained since the start of the pandemic to contain the fresh wave of infections.

“There are risks of future waves. New cases are concerning and we see new clusters popping up almost daily. People have begun taking shortcuts on hygiene practices and physical distancing, which could be due to fatigue,” said Sharifa. “However, Malaysia’s past experience in managing Covid-19 puts us in a better position to handle future outbreaks.

“At the moment, we have enough capacity to properly admit, treat and manage Covid-19 cases that present symptoms such as shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is well stocked, but there are instances of delays in delivery of these PPE to hospitals that need it,” she added.

Students attend classes while maintaining safety and health protocols imposed by the Malaysian Ministry of Health in Bandar Baru Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia on July 15, 2020. Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/Farid Bin Tajuddin

An uneven distribution of resources and medical personnel between urban and rural areas continues to be an obstacle, say health experts. “We have limitations in getting the PPE to clinics, police stations and schools due to lack of infrastructure. The greater challenge is the intra-country logistics to every nook and corner of the country,” Marzida said.

“There is a lack of health professionals, including doctors and nurses, so the Ministry of Health obtains contract doctors who are then deployed into high need areas,” Sharifa. “Covid-19 care is centralized in urban hospitals, which requires transporting Covid-19 patients in rural areas to hospitals that may be far away.”

Malaysia’s earlier success in flattening its epidemic curve relied on strictly enforced movement curbs, mass testing and aggressive contract tracing. Stricter compliance with health protocols is now being emphasized, but a more effective management of the pandemic at this juncture could conceivably risk being undermined by political instability.

Muhyiddin, who came to power in March in a political coup, had earlier enjoyed broad public support of his government’s Covid-19 handling and dispensation of financial aid. A survey completed in August by independent pollster Merdeka Center showed a 93% overall satisfaction rate with the country’s health response.

“The challenge for Muhyiddin is that he has rested his legitimacy, or his performance, on a successful process of containing Covid-19, and this is a big problem now that we see a change in the Covid-19 situation,” said the University of Nottingham’s Welsh. “It will be very important to see what steps are being taken now to address that.”

A fresh bout of political drama was sparked in late September when Malaysia’s opposition leader claimed that Muhyiddin’s government had fallen after he secured an alleged “formidable” parliamentary majority to form a new federal government. Anwar, 73, has yet to reveal the names of those who purportedly support his takeover bid.

His leadership challenge hit a setback when Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, who Anwar would need an audience with to formalize his ascent to the premiership, fell ill and became indisposed for more than a week. Anwar is due to present his case for taking over from Muhyiddin when he meets the king on October 13.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin are in a battle for the national leadership. Image: Facebook

Analysts say the meeting could potentially set off a process where both Anwar and Muhyiddin would have to prove their respective majorities, an exercise that could lead to intense horse-trading and debilitating political uncertainty in the midst of the most serious acceleration of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia to date.

Before the third wave of contagion now facing the country, speculation had been rife that a snap general election could soon be called at an advantageous time or forced as the result of political alliance shifting that leads to the dissolution of Parliament. As far as Malaysians are concerned, many say now is not the time for politicking and elections.

“There is a lot of anger at politicians across the political divide, and anger about politicians wanting to go to elections at this particular juncture,” said Welsh. “There’s a lot of pressure from the public right now to push for a situation of political stability as opposed to that situation of political positioning.”