KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government on Tuesday (May 11) defended its response to the Covid-19 pandemic amid criticism of poor coordination and crisis communication as the country heads into a third lockdown from Wednesday.
The top officials in charge of the security and health aspects of the pandemic response held a rare joint press conference to address the criticisms.
Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob insisted that Kuala Lumpur was "serious" in tackling the pandemic, saying that confusion over changing Covid-19 protocols was exacerbated by the dynamic nature of fluctuating infections in the country.
Malaysia will enforce its third movement control order (MCO) from Wednesday for nearly a month following another surge in infections and hospitalisations, just over two months after the country gradually reopened its economy after a second lockdown in January and February. The first lockdown was between March and May last year.
"Some people say we are not serious (in dealing with the crisis). The National Security Council has been meeting three times a week now, as opposed to once a week previously," Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri said on Tuesday, flanked by health ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah. The NSC is the decision-making body in dealing with Covid-19.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the imposition of the MCO on Monday and this unleashed a barrage of critical comments, particularly on social media, with many questioning the effectiveness of previous lockdowns as well as the state of emergency imposed since January.
Except for a slight lull in mid-March, daily infections have continued to climb by the thousands despite the measures.
Shortly after the Prime Minister's announcement, the hashtag #KerajaanGagal (Failed government) started trending again on Twitter.
"If it wasn't for Covid, I'd be rioting on the street," said a Twitter user with the handle Farid Farish.
On Tuesday, Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham defended both the second lockdown and the state of emergency, saying that cases would have been much higher had it not been for the tougher restrictions announced in January.
He also said that the state of emergency was necessary to stop several by-elections from taking place and curb the transmission of the coronavirus.
But Dr Noor Hisham, the health chief, conceded that reopening schools and the social sector in March may have been a little too early, and that this led to a surge in infections at a time when new variants of the coronavirus which were of concern had entered the country.
He said that 80 per cent of cases currently being recorded were sporadic community infections involving Malaysians, and not confined to clusters. He also warned of limited availability of intensive care unit (ICU) beds for Covid-19 patients with over 500 of the 734 available ICU beds already taken up.
"We need three to four weeks to bring down the numbers and, at the same time, enable the health ministry to build our capacity to be prepared for any surge in the future," he said, adding that health authorities were looking to add 1,000 more ICU beds in the coming weeks.
Mr Ismail Sabri, who regularly outlines Covid-19-related protocols, initially announced an MCO for only six districts in Malaysia's most populous and worst-hit state, Selangor. This was due to begin last week. However, the very next day, on May 5, he announced that the order would be extended to the federal capital Kuala Lumpur.
Then, on Monday, Mr Muhyiddin extended the order to the whole country until June 7, although Sabah in east Malaysia said that it would maintain its more relaxed Covid-19 protocols despite the premier's announcement.
Epidemiologist Malina Osman told The Straits Times she welcomed the new lockdown as the "best decision" for the country, although she felt that it could have been implemented earlier.
"It would decrease the transmission rate of the virus and we should observe a decrease in new and active cases," she said.
The latest MCO also means that Malaysians, for the second year in a row, will be spending Hari Raya under tough restrictions, with many stricter than those in place last year. House visits for the festival are not allowed.
Malaysians vented their fury at the scuppering of their plans for Hari Raya, the country's biggest festival, with businessman Muhamad Benjamin Eusop saying the government response was "not well thought out."
"They should have imposed this earlier to contain the virus. Now all of us are paying the price," Mr Muhamad told The Straits Times, saying that Malaysians were "going around in circles" with the repeat lockdowns.
While businesses can remain open, a ban on social activities and travel restrictions will keep most of their customers home. People will step out only to buy essentials like food and medicine, with restaurants only offering takeaway meals.
Individuals are allowed to travel only for essential work purposes, vaccination or emergencies - and there is a maximum limit of three people in a car. Inter-state as well as inter-district travel is also banned, with roadblocks set up to enforce the rules.
On Tuesday, the country reported 3,973 new Covid-19 cases and another 22 deaths. The number of total active cases now is near to the 40,000 mark.