Coronavirus: Army patrols Malaysian streets as cases spike

Soldiers wearing face masks look out from an army truck during the control of movement in Kuala Lumpur, on March 22, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

PETALING JAYA (REUTERS, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Malaysia deployed the army on Sunday (March 22) to enforce a two-week curb on travel in a country that has the highest number of coronavirus cases in South-east Asia, most of them linked to a mass religious gathering.

A doctor has become the latest victim of the coronavirus, bringing the country's death toll to nine.

The 48-year-old doctor from Hospital Tuanku Fauziah (HTF) in the state of Perlis died at 10.33am, the Health Ministry's director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said.

"The patient has a travel history to Turkey and arrived back in the country on March 8," said Datuk Seri Noor Hisham.

"He was then warded at the HTF on March 17 after showing symptoms of severe acute respiratory infection and was later confirmed positive Covid-19 on March 18," he said. "He has been on respiratory support since March 19 after his condition deteriorated, and eventually passed away at 10.33am today."

The country has so far reported nine deaths and 1,183 infections. South-east Asia has recorded a total of more than 3,200 positive cases, with the other big centres being Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

Most of the infections in Malaysia are related to a gathering of the tabligh Islamic missionary movement last month, while more than a dozen healthcare workers from government and private hospitals have also come down with the virus.

Malaysia called in the army after some people continued to defy restrictions that came into force on Wednesday, the defence minister said in a briefing after the deployment started at noon.

"Even though police have said 90% compliance now, 10% is not a small number," Mr Ismail Sabri Yaakob said.

"Among the things that will be done jointly by the police and army include road blocks. Likewise for patrols in urban and rural areas, maintaining security at hospitals, managing areas that are congested and may not abide by the order such as markets."

Earlier, pictures in defence portal Air Times News Network showed photos of troops wearing face mask and in full gear, but minus firearms, saying their prayers before being deployed to their duty stations nationwide.

"The Malaysian Armed Forces from Markas 11 Briged have been deployed to enforce Op Penawar," stated the Air Times News Network, referring to the official name for the deployment of the military assistance.

Mr Ismail Sabri announced last Friday that the army would be deployed, as there were still many Malaysians who were out on the streets despite the movement restrictions that came into force last Wednesday to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Defence Force Chief General Affendi Buang on Saturday refuted a voice message circulating on WhatsApp that said military personnel were allowed to use force on members of the public while enforcing the RMO.

Tan Sri Affendi said people do not need to be afraid to see the military enforcing the movement control order, as it is its secondary duty during peacetime. He assured Malaysians that the military will not resort to violence as it collaborates with the police to enforce the RMO. "Please stop spreading such messages because it can cause panic among the people, " he said.

The defence chief also warned against spreading the fake message, saying anyone caught spreading fake news can be charged.

Separately, Malaysia's police chief, Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador, has confirmed that six police personnel tested positive for Covid-19 while their 335 family members are awaiting test results.

"To date, six of my men have tested positive for Covid-19... (and) we continue to give the rest of them encouragement and motivation to carry out their jobs," the Inspector-General of Police said in an exclusive interview on Astro Awani. He said the cases highlighted the risks police personnel faced in carrying out their duties.

The movement control order was announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin last Monday after the country saw a spike in Covid-19 cases. The restrictions will remain until March 31.

The order includes a ban on mass gatherings, including all religious, sporting, social and cultural events. Houses of worship and businesses are to close, but supermarkets, markets, mini-markets and convenience stores will remain open.

All schools, universities and businesses will be shuttered but those providing essential services - including utilities, transport, banking, healthcare and security - will continue to operate during the two-week period.

The four-day Islamic gathering held at a mosque near the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is connected to 60 per cent of all the cases in the country, whose tally is only behind those of China and South Korea in Asia.

Worshippers who attended the event are cooperating with authorities, an organiser said in a statement, after the government said on Thursday that it had yet to trace 4,000 of the 14,500 Malaysian residents who attended.

The health ministry said on Saturday it expected the number of cases to spike next week as it tried to track down unscreened participants of the Feb. 27-March 1 congregation.

"After hearing reports of thousands or participants yet to be screened, many had returned to their district health departments or hospitals repeatedly until their names and details were recorded," Mr Abdullah Cheong, a leader of the event's organising team, said on Saturday.

"We are prepared and have given our full commitment to help the authorities deal with the pandemic."

He also said 12,500 people attended the gathering, including foreigners and 200 Rohingya refugees. The government has put the number at 16,000.

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