A child is tested for coronavirus in Shah Alam, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

Malaysia announced Friday a nationwide lockdown for the first time in over a year as it battles a rapidly escalating coronavirus outbreak that has strained the healthcare system.

Officials believe more infectious variants have contributed to the surge, as well as gatherings in the Muslim-majority country during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr holiday this month.

A food delivery worker rides along an empty street in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP/ EyePress News

After a new daily record of 8,290 infections Friday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s office said the country would enter a “total lockdown” from Tuesday.

This involves the complete shutdown of all social and economic sectors, with only businesses deemed essential allowed to operate, it said. 

The restrictions will be in place initially until June 14.

“The existence of new aggressive variants with a higher and faster infection rate has influenced this decision,” it said. 

“With the increase in daily cases… capacity in hospitals across the country to treat Covid-19 patients has become more limited.”

Malaysia, with a population of 32 million, has recorded 549,514 cases since the start of the pandemic and 2,552 deaths. 

While moderate by global standards, its outbreak has increased rapidly in recent weeks, and the number of patients in intensive care and on ventilators has hit record highs.  

In Friday’s statement, the government laid out a plan for a gradual easing of curbs if the initial lockdown brings cases down.

Authorities also pledged to step up the vaccination rollout, which has been criticized as slow and chaotic, and to provide financial aid to those impacted by the lockdown.

Malaysia managed to avoid a serious outbreak last year when Covid-19 emerged by implementing tough curbs, including a lockdown. 

But cases started to rise sharply at the start of this year, leading the government to gradually tighten restrictions and impose a state of emergency.

AFP