Malaysia's health chief calls for targeted lockdowns as Covid-19 cases surge

Kuala Lumpur recorded 256 new cases.
Kuala Lumpur recorded 256 new cases.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s health chief has called for targeted lockdowns in parts of the country as daily coronavirus infections hit a new high of 2,593 cases on Wednesday (Jan 6).

Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said the country’s health system is at a “breaking point”, as the number of active cases filled hospital beds to near full capacity.

“Our worry is the daily rise in cases. The CMCO (conditional movement control order) implemented on Oct 14 prevented cases from hitting 4,000. We managed to avoid that, but with the 1.1 R0 (reproductive rate), we still couldn’t bring the cases down,” Tan Sri Noor Hisham said during his daily briefing on Wednesday, referring to the partial shutdown that banned interstate travel and social gatherings, and shut schools. 

The Straits Times understands that Malaysia is preparing to impose its most stringent shutdown – the movement control order – in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Sabah, Johor, Penang and Melaka. This would mean people are required to stay home except for essential activities like buying food or getting medical attention, while schools, restaurants and workplaces will be shut. 

Selangor, continued to record the most infections on Wednesday, with 965 new cases, followed by Johor, which reported 571 cases. Sabah recorded 405 cases, while the capital Kuala Lumpur recorded 256 new cases.

Total active Covid-19 cases also continued to climb, reaching 24,347 cases or nearly 85 per cent of the country's 28,674 hospital beds set aside for Covid-19 patients. The country's cumulative cases now stand at 125,438 cases since the pandemic began.

Malaysia has consistently reported four-digit daily infections since the beginning of the third wave of a pandemic that started in September last year following the Sabah state legislative elections. The previous peak of new daily infections was 2,525, reported less than a week ago.

Dr Noor Hisham said cases are expected to continue spiking even further in the coming weeks. 

Under this third wave, Malaysia had initially imposed a partial lockdown covering one-third of its population from mid-October until December. However, the government lifted travel restrictions on Dec 7 due to concerns about its impact on the economy, allowing interstate travel in time for the Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Case numbers have consistently breached the 2,000 mark over the past month, with active cases doubling in the period. Malaysia has so far recorded 513 deaths from coronavirus, with four deaths added on Wednesday.

The first batch of vaccines, which are eventually expected to cover around 80 per cent of the country's 32 million population, is expected to arrive in February, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin set to be among the first to be inoculated.

The stubbornly high coronavirus case numbers come amid continuing political uncertainty in the country, following reports that Umno - the biggest party in Tan Sri Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional government - is again considering withdrawing its support for the premier, which could trigger snap elections.

Several by-elections have been postponed recently due to the pandemic.