Coronavirus: Malaysians scramble to prepare for lockdown after snap decision to curtail movement

Shoppers at a supermarket in Karak, Malaysia, on March 17, 2020. Long queues were still seen at supermarkets as people stockpiled essentials, even though PM Muhyiddin had explicitly said supermarkets would stay open. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - A sudden weekend spike saw the coronavirus case count nearly triple to 553, prompting Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to order on Monday (March 16) a nationwide restriction of movement that takes effect on Wednesday until the end of the month.

The move, which closes all non-essential businesses and prohibits Malaysians from leaving or foreigners from entering the country, was the biggest decision he has made since taking office just a fortnight ago, and a huge departure from the government's relatively sanguine attitude towards the now-pandemic since the first patient was found in January.

Even after it was learnt last Wednesday (March 11) that an infected person had broken quarantine after returning from South Korea to attend a mass Islamic gathering on Feb 27 to March 1, life went on and so did prayers at mosques nationwide except in the tiny northern state of Perlis.

But the federal government kicked into action after 190 new infections were detected on Sunday, mostly linked to Muslim missionary movement Tabligh's event at a mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur which was attended by about 16,000 people.

So far, 428 out of 673 infections have been linked to the gathering. This cluster has also contributed around 90 per cent of Covid-19 cases in the time since it was identified. One of the two deaths from the disease announced on Tuesday - the first in the country so far - was an attendee from Johor.

The Prime Minister's Office met officials from the health and defence ministries on Monday to decide on how to slow the spread of the disease. Malaysia had entered a late containment stage, the third of four for dealing with such outbreaks, and the meeting was to decide on a course of action for the final mitigation phase.

Health Minister Adham Baba said on Sunday that "drastic action" was needed.

That action turned out to be the Restricted Movement Order announced late on Monday, to "check the spread of this virus by way of restricting public movement".

"As the situation continues to worsen, we can wait no longer. This is the only way to prevent more people from being infected by this life-threatening virus," Tan Sri Muhyiddin said in an address televised nationally.

But with just over 24 hours for the country of over 30 million to prepare, many were left unaware of specific details of the restriction order up until Tuesday evening (March 17) as they sought to prepare for the two-week shutdown of non-essential business.

It was only after 2pm - less than 10 hours before restrictions would take effect - that the National Security Council issued an FAQ to address some of the more pressing queries, such as whether Malaysians could still return from overseas (yes), and whether Malaysians could still cross the Causeway to work in Singapore (no).

At 5pm, police said that those intending to travel interstate would need to show them adequate cause, a regulation that was not mentioned previously. But it then rescinded the rule at the 11th hour, following crowds that gathered at police stations seeking the greenlight to cross state borders.

Long queues were still seen at supermarkets as people stockpiled essentials, even though PM Muhyiddin had explicitly said supermarkets would stay open.

The premier also met chief ministers to coordinate the restricted movement procedure among various states, but the five heads of opposition-held states were not invited.

"Selangor is the state most impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak. The state administration is disappointed at not being involved in the important matter involving human lives," said Chief Minister Amirudin Shari, who heads Malaysia's richest state.

Meanwhile, some economic sectors have protested against the forced closure. Tourism players said hotels could not shutter with guests already checked in as foreign tourists would be hard-pressed to immediately exit the country.

The Straits Times has also learnt that some manufacturers, such as in the semiconductor hub of Penang, are also negotiating with the authorities regarding the two-week shutdown.

Government agencies have, meanwhile, rolled out continuity plans, with the Public Service Department ordering staff in non-essential roles to work from home but to be on stand-by to head to locations where their services are required. Some local councils, such as the Kuala Lumpur City Hall, have also announced the closure of common facilities such as public parks.

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