PETALING JAYA • Malaysia joined the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam yesterday when it became mandatory to wear face masks in public places to stem the tide of Covid-19 infections.
Those found flouting the new rule will face a fine of up to RM1,000 (S$324).
During the height of the coronavirus outbreak in March, when Malaysia introduced a partial shutdown, face masks were required to be worn only by healthcare workers and those showing symptoms of the virus.
In early June, the health authorities eased the shutdown measures - referred to as the movement control order (MCO) - as the number of new infections fell and the country entered a recovery phase. However, the number of new cases has risen again since then.
On July 23, Senior Minister for Security Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that Malaysians will be required to wear face masks in public areas.
He said the decision was made following the increase of Covid-19 cases and the public's general failure to comply with safety procedures on social distancing.
He said the government had previously refrained from making face masks compulsory because it did not want to add to the financial burden of the lower-income group.
Police in Kota Tinggi, Johor, yesterday fined 26 people RM1,000 each for not wearing face masks while they were at the beach. Meanwhile, police in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, said they would not issue fines in the first couple of days, to allow people time to get used to the habit of wearing masks.
Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia president Raj Kumar Maharajah said wearing face masks helps keep the infectivity rate or the R-naught (R0) rate under 1.0, which means that the probability of an infected person spreading it to others can be minimised.
During the MCO, the R0 rate was at 0.3. It is now at 1.36.
"Wearing face masks could prevent a second wave of the virus," Dr Raj said. "This sacrifice is needed from everyone - at least until a vaccine is ready."
Fine of up to this amount if face mask is not worn in public places
Apart from wearing face masks, Dr Raj said physical distancing, good hygiene and isolation - for example, by working from home - can also help prevent the spread of the virus.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised people to wear a face mask in public where there is community transmission and when social distancing is not possible. The WHO said that healthy people wearing face masks can reduce the potential risk of exposure from infected persons who had yet to develop symptoms.
Malaysian health chief Noor Hisham Abdullah attributed the resurgence of cases to the "public's complacency and their non-compliance with the standard operating procedure (SOP) set by the government".
There have been incidents where returning travellers breached their mandatory home quarantine, and were spotted dining at restaurants when they were supposed to be at home.
Datuk Dr Noor Hisham pointed out that if non-compliance and public complacency continued, there was a possibility of another wave of transmissions if the R0 exceeded 1.6.
A poll conducted on The Star's Facebook page on July 21 found that most Malaysians were receptive to wearing masks, with 41,200 out of 45,700 people agreeing that face masks should be made compulsory in public areas.
Malaysia reported nine new coronavirus cases yesterday, bringing the total number of infections to 8,985. No new fatalities were recorded, keeping the death toll at 125 since the pandemic began.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK