Officials debate full lockdown as Covid-19 hits record high in Malaysia

A top official in a development agency revealed that discussions about a full lockdown have been ongoing.
A top official in a development agency revealed that discussions about a full lockdown have been ongoing.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Top government officials have been at loggerheads over whether to impose stricter restrictions under Malaysia's nationwide movement control order (MCO), with no sign of the spread of Covid-19 abating nearly two weeks after inter-district movement and social activities were curbed in the Klang Valley.

Daily Covid-19 cases hit a new high of 6,075 cases on Wednesday, the highest in Malaysia since the pandemic was tracked in the country from January last year.

The Straits Times understands that some quarters are pushing for rules similar to the first MCO implemented in March 2020 - which barred all non-essential activities - to be announced this week despite fears that it would torpedo hopes of an economic rebound after last year's recession.

A top official in a development agency revealed that discussions have been ongoing and that "a full lockdown may kick in as early as this Friday (May 21)".

The authorities have also reached out to business associations to seek their position on whether to impose a lockdown that would shutter nearly all commerce with stay-home orders.

This follows a series of public statements by both health and economic officials debating the need for MCO1.0-style restrictions to be introduced, as deaths and intensive care unit (ICU) usage have been breaking records all through May. Malaysia on Wednesday logged a new record high of 6,075 cases in the last 24 hours.

Health Minister Adham Baba was the first to acknowledge the possibility of a "full MCO" on Monday, when asked about possible measures to contain Selangor's persistent four-digit daily tally of cases, which represent about a third of the 4,000-odd national average so far in May.

Selangor, Malaysia's richest state, was the first to return to the MCO on May 6.

It was swiftly followed by other states before Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin made it countrywide, although Sabah and Sarawak have refused to abide by the directive. It is the third MCO that Malaysia has imposed and comes just two months after the last one was lifted.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz weighed in, arguing that economic activities should not be curtailed as previous MCOs "succeeded in significantly reducing Covid-19 cases but when we became lax and did not abide by SOPs (standard operating procedures) fully, especially with the opening of more social activities, cases began to rise suddenly".

In a Facebook post, he pointed out that economic contraction and unemployment surged during MCO1.0's strict lockdown when compared with MCO2.0 that began in January. The first quarter ending in March saw gross domestic product (GDP) shrink just 0.5 per cent, the lowest decline Malaysia has reported in a year, and unemployment was stable at about 750,000.

"It is estimated that a full shutdown of economic activities similar to MCO1.0 will result in over a million unemployed," Datuk Seri Zafrul said. "No other nation on earth has fully closed their economy in facing the second and third waves."

Malaysia's GDP contracted by 5.6 per cent last year, and the authorities have forecast a growth of up to 7.5 per cent in 2021, returning the economy to pre-pandemic levels.

But Director-General of Health Noor Hisham Abdullah, who heads the pandemic response, signalled his support for a full lockdown on Tuesday by sharing a news report recommending a "total MCO" and joining some 3,000 people who shared a tweet saying "it is necessary and a MUST to implement total lockdown!" as the healthcare system was already at full capacity.

Despite increasing the number of ICU beds to more than 1,000 from 850 last week, three-quarters are full nationwide with nine out of 10 occupied in the Klang Valley.

Aside from posting about "empty streets in Taipei as citizens practice self-lockdown", he also said the spread of more infectious variants of the virus with higher mortality rates "is very worrying".

Tan Sri Noor Hisham also appeared to indicate that stricter measures beyond that of government-imposed restrictions are required.

"The Health Ministry advises the public to practice self-movement control. We have no other choice, 'kita jaga kita'," he said in a statement. The Malay phrase has been used by Malaysians as a reminder that it is up to the community to collectively protect themselves from the deadly virus.