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Malaysia, once hailed by WHO as ‘united’ against COVID, is back in the block

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The Malaysian government on Monday announced a new blockade in much of the country, banning interstate travel as daily coronavirus case numbers set a new record.

A day later, the country’s king Al-Sultan Abdullahd declared a state of emergency for several months as requested by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin the first in half a century.

Under the urgency, set to last until August 1, Parliament has been suspended and Mr Muhyiddin’s Cabinet will have special powers.

Mr Muhyiddin said the country’s health system was on the verge of collapse due to the COVID-19 case spirals, demanding a new two-week blockade, referred to locally as a movement control order (MCO), and a nationwide travel ban.

“The situation today is really very alarming. Our health care system is under tremendous pressure, more now than at any other time since the onset of the pandemic,” he said.

But just a few months ago the situation in Malaysia was drastically different.

Malaysia had less than 13,000 cases in early October just about half of Australia’s total.

At the time, World Health Organization representative for Malaysia Ying-Ru Jacqueline Lo wrote that Malaysia was “a united country in the face of the pandemic”.

A young woman poses for a photo
Atiqah Farhanah says life in Malaysia was returning to normal before this week’s emergency announcement.(Supplied)

“I applaud the tireless work of the Malaysian Front aircraft and their services are on par with some highly developed nations,” Atiqah Farhanah, a Kuala Lumpur resident, told ABC.

With the announcement of vaccine deliveries across the country in 2021 she had “thought the prospects would be better this year”.

“My family started going back there and even cycling [the park] every week, “she said.

But by Christmas Eve, Malaysia had exceeded 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Sweat beads are seen on the face shield of a man wearing a Santa Claus
Christmas marked a grim coronavirus milestone for Malaysia.(AP: Vincent Thian)

On Tuesday, the Southeast Asian country of 32 million reported a record 3,309 new infections, bringing its total cases to more than 141,000.

Nearly 600 people in Malaysia have died from the coronavirus.

The political victory for the Government of Malaysia came at the cost of COVID-19

The government implemented a strict MCO between March and last May, banning mass rallies, including religious and sporting events in the Muslim-majority country.

The connection was enforced by police and the military. Thousands of arrests were made for violations.

Authorities rounded up hundreds of migrant workers, claiming they were responsible for spreading the virus.

“With the first [lockdown] … I felt there was a strong national consensus that “we will flatten the curve,” said Mike, an Australian citizen who has resided in Malaysia for 11 years.

Malaysia eased its restrictions significantly after May, however, and held a state election in Sabah in September, despite warnings of a possible increase in cases.

Many politicians, employees and voters traveled between Kuala Lumpur and Sabah, on the island of Borneo, for the polls.

Muslims pray outside a mosque because of COVID restrictions
The early blockade of Malaysia banned religious gatherings, but conditions were relaxed.(AFP: Mohd Rasfan)

While the election brought a political victory for Mr Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition, he later acknowledged that they had contributed to a new explosion.

“Especially in the early days of the pandemic, some politicians were not behaving according to standard procedures and were basically not setting a very strong example for the public,” said Dr Suan Ee Ong, a Malaysian public health expert at think tank based in Singapore Research for Impact, told ABC.

Mike, who asked not to be released his full name to avoid reactions from Malaysian authorities, said the Sabah election was a turning point for public confidence.

“[There were] “ministers coming from overseas and not quarantining … from the beginning of september, you can really see things progressing slowly,” he said.

By mid-October, hundreds of new cases were being registered every day.

Minister of Religious Affairs Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing most of Mr Muhyiddin’s Cabinet into isolation.

Since then, a number of ministers have been infected with the virus.

Malaysian Minister for Women, Rina Harun, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, following Economic Affairs Minister Mustapa Mohamad.

Several other cabinet ministers have entered isolation after being exposed to their infected colleagues.

A local food vendor prepares food in downtown Kuala Lumpur
Migrants in Kuala Lumpur blamed early for the alleged spread of COVID-19.(AP: Vincent Thian)

The coronavirus pandemic had been a boon to Malaysia and the world’s largest glove manufacturer Top Glove.

By November, however, the company closed half of its factories after nearly 2,500 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Top Glove has been repeatedly accused of labor rights abuses against its predominantly migrant workforce, with the US last year restricting imports of its gloves over forced labor concerns.

The company has previously said it had “already resolved” alleged labor violations.

Malaysian authorities lifted the remaining domestic travel bans in early December.

Residents line up for coronavirus testing on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur
COVID-19 post-election shooting cases in the Malaysian state of Sabah.(AP: Vincent Thian)

“That, I think, definitely had a part to play in looking at the letter numbers [rise] because domestic tourism grew, people started seeing family and friends living interstate, “said Dr Ong, who is also a member of the Kuala Lumpur-based Galen Center for Health and Social Policy.

‘A very bleak picture of COVID-19 pandemic management’

Almost 50 current and former senior health care officials write an open letter to Mr. Muhyiddin last week warned that despite the government’s efforts, the growing infections “are not decreasing”.

A doctor collects a sample for a coronavirus test from a Malaysian child
Experts are calling on Malaysia to increase its testing capabilities.(AP: Vincent Thian)

“Our national metrics present a very bleak picture of COVID-19 pandemic management. Despite MCOs and other health interventions, the reported daily cases are not decreasing,” experts said, calling for the immediate formation of a force. national work COVID-19.

“Most of our ICU beds are very, very full,” said Dr Ee Ong.

A doctor checks a patient's condition inside an infectious disease isolation room
Nearly 600 people have died from COVID-19 in Malaysia.(World Health Organization: Yasha Bin Yaakub)

The letter called on the government to increase testing, protect the healthcare system by forcing more people to isolate at home and speed up vaccine approval “so that immunization can begin as soon as the first doses of vaccine arrive at the airport “.

Malaysia has ordered 25 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and also has a deal to buy AstraZeneca stroke.

Mr Muhyiddin has said the first phase of COVID-19 vaccination is expected to begin in February, with the initial goal of inoculating 40 per cent of the population.

A woman wearing a face mask walks under the decorations of New Year's lanterns
Malaysia is entering a state of emergency caused by the coronavirus.(AP: Vincent Thian)

The letter from Malaysian experts said the government should “seriously consider” the priority of vaccinating high-risk groups, including migrant workers and refugees who they said were “the silent epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreaks”.

Lunar New Year is in February of this year, and while it is usually a major national holiday in Malaysia, where about a third of the population is ethnic Chinese, in 2021 it promises to be a submissive occasion.

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