Coronavirus: Malaysia to deploy troops to ensure stay-home order followed as death toll rises

A police car patrols a street in Kuala Lumpur on March 20, the third day of Movement Control Order enforcement in Malaysia. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - More healthcare workers in Malaysia were infected with the potentially deadly coronavirus on Saturday (March 21), as troops were preparing to be deployed to assist in enforcing a government order for people to stay home.

Armed Forces chief Affendi Buang strongly denied that military personnel were allowed to use physical force on citizens who disobeyed the Restriction of Movement Order (RMO) after a WhatsApp message containing a voice clip claiming this went viral.

In the clip, someone is heard urging people to obey the order as troops would not hesitate to assault those refusing to stay at home.

"The public is asked to stop spreading it immediately as this message can lead to speculation and cause panic among people," General Affendi said in a statement.

Several Malaysians have already been arrested for flouting the order, including three members of a tabligh Islamic missionary movement, one of whom is suspected to have attended the tabligh mass gathering last month which is the source of a high number of Covid-19 infections in the country.

Police arrested them as they were attempting to flee a roadblock near Georgetown, in Penang, on Friday.

Malaysia recorded 153 new cases and five new deaths as of Saturday, health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said. This brought the total tally of infected cases to 1,183 infections, with eight deaths.

Of the new cases, 90 are linked to the tabligh gathering. The latest deaths were three men, aged between 57 and 69, who had attended the gathering, and a mother, 79, and her daughter, 40.

A total of 19 government healthcare workers and five from the private healthcare sector have tested positive for Covid-19.

"The cause of the infection for all 19 is not due to non-compliance in handling Covid-19 cases at their facilities. Investigations showed that they all were infected because they were in close contact with first- and second-generation contacts from the tabligh cluster," Datuk Dr Noor Hisham told a news conference.

He added that the government needs at least 500 more ventilators, on top of the 925 ventilators being used at 26 hospitals currently, in anticipation of more cases in the coming weeks.

Some experts have warned Malaysians not to be complacent.

Think-tank Research for Social Advancement (Refsa) shared a chart on its Facebook page comparing the number of cases in Malaysia against Italy's, and said that "Malaysia's pattern of recorded cases followed closely to that of Italy in the early days".

"In order to avoid drastic increases in cases, it is important to practise social distancing, stay home, in order to flatten the curve, before it's too late. We must do everything we can to prevent Malaysia going the 'Italian way'."

Italy's death toll surged by 627 over the past 24 hours to 4,032 - reportedly the world's largest daily rise in absolute terms since the contagion emerged there a month ago. Italy has also surpassed China, where the virus originated, in the death toll.

Dr Noor Hisham on Wednesday pleaded with people to stay home to break the chain of transmission.

"Failure is not an option here; otherwise, we might face the third wave of the virus. The next one will be as big as a tsunami, more so if we have a lackadaisical attitude," he said.

Meanwhile, kind-hearted Malaysians are providing free meals and even babysitting services to ease the personal hardships faced by front-line medical personnel and other workers such as taxi drivers and labourers during the RMO.

Among them are the founders of Kembara Soup Kitchen, Mr William Cheah and Ms YiLyn Chan, who have pledged to provide meals to the staff at Sungai Buloh Hospital during the outbreak.

On Monday, popular entrepreneur Vivy Yusof donated portable air-conditioners to Serdang Hospital.

Additional reporting by Nadirah H. Rodzi

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.