Coronavirus: Millions left vulnerable as extension of Malaysian restrictions looms

Since Malaysia activated its Restricted Movement Order on March 18, it has so far avoided the exponential increase seen in other countries, but the number of new cases detected daily has at best plateaued at the 110-160 range.
Since Malaysia activated its Restricted Movement Order on March 18, it has so far avoided the exponential increase seen in other countries, but the number of new cases detected daily has at best plateaued at the 110-160 range.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia will likely see an extension of its ongoing movement curbs, going by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's guidance that the authorities will base their decision next Monday (March 30) on whether there is a reduction in coronavirus infections.

But with pockets getting empty for the country's most vulnerable, the government is also being pressed to ensure a stimulus boost - the second after last month's RM20 billion (S$6.6 billion) injection - to be unveiled on the same day helps keep people's heads, and not just businesses, above water.

Since Malaysia activated its Restricted Movement Order (RMO) on March 18, it has so far avoided the exponential increase seen in other countries - especially in Europe and the US - but the number of new cases detected daily has at best plateaued at the 110-160 range.

However, the figure spiked to 212 on Monday, indicating that with six days to go before the National Security Council (NSC) sits, the likelihood of reducing infections to a trickle by the current March 31 end of the RMO is remote.

Even then, the one- to two-week extension mentioned by Tan Sri Muhyiddin on Monday is well short of the time frame proposed by experts.

Several epidemiologists have suggested that the order should be enforced until the end of April or May, given that compliance with restrictions aimed at reducing human contact only ranged between 60 per cent and 90 per cent so far. Malaysians, except those working in essential fields, have been instructed to stay home aside from quick trips out to purchase household necessities.

Universiti Malaya Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud noted that in China, "even when cases fell to zero, they waited for 14 days... because new clusters may emerge that are asymptomatic".

"They have to wait until the incubation period is over and no new cases appear," he said.

The NSC could decide on rolling extensions every fortnight, but many Malaysians do not have the luxury of adopting a wait-and-see-bills-pile-up approach at a time when non-essential businesses have paused but financial liabilities march on.

While the RM20 billion stimulus launched on Feb 27 under the ousted Mahathir Mohamad administration came before any forced shutdowns and tourism was the main sector affected, experts have bemoaned that interim initiatives under PM Muhyiddin have focused on supporting consumption - the main driver of the economy - and the government balance sheet rather than providing a safety net to the nation's poorest.

The Premier's main announcements have been RM500 million in electricity subsidies and the release of an expected RM40 billion from the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) for 12 million workers over the next 12 months.

 
 
 

But about four-fifths of electricity spending comes from business, not residential accounts. And the option to withdraw up to RM500 monthly from the statutory retirement fund has been panned by trade unions, politicians and economists alike.

"The bottom 40 per cent of active members in EPF may not have enough savings... to benefit for the entire 12 months," Khazanah Research Institute's Christopher Choong told the Malay Mail news portal.

This means that much of the RM40 billion will be for the better-heeled, instead of the neediest. Further, the labour force stands at 16 million, meaning a quarter of workers are unable to tap EPF reserves.

Official data shows nine out of 10 have less than RM1,000 saved up for a rainy day, and poverty beckons with many losing their source of income - more than a quarter of workers are freelancers and the government estimates 33,000 are on unpaid leave.

Already, loss of employment is at a record high since Malaysia introduced its Employment Insurance System (EIS). So far, 2020 has seen 14,576 applications for unemployment benefits - according to data up to Monday made available to The Straits Times - as compared to the 10,990 in the first quarter of 2019. The increase from last year's claimants has steadily widened, from 16 per cent in January, to 60 per cent in February and is on track to exceed 80 per cent this month.

The economic adviser to former premier Mahathir has said a "conservative estimate" of 10 per cent of small businesses - many have zero revenue now - could shutter, resulting in over a million layoffs.

 
 
 

Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid told The Straits Times: "We must do whatever it takes to ensure firms survive and people have income and jobs. Ensure no outflow (delay and decrease loan payments, reduce tax), but continue inflows with wage subsidy.

"It is meaningless if we still want positive economic growth and good fiscal position while the public suffers and the nation is in chaos."

Dr Muhammad, as well as the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition, have called on the government to disburse RM1,000 per month to Malaysia's poorest, instead of just the current RM600 monthly for those on unpaid leave and RM100 daily to those warded or placed under quarantine due to the coronavirus.