Today, Malaysia will go into its third lockdown to head off a surge of a highly infections variant of COVID-19, unexpectedly curtailing Eid festivities for Malaysian Muslims for the second year running.
Between today and June 7, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Monday, social activities including dining out are banned and all inter-state and inter-district travel is forbidden except for medical or other approved reasons. Events will be postponed and schools will be closed.
“There are now COVID-19 variants that are more infectious while the capacity of the public health system is becoming more critical,” Muhyiddin said. “Malaysia is facing a third wave of COVID-19 that could trigger a national crisis.” He also cited “weaknesses in COVID-19 protocol compliance by some,” something that called for “the government take drastic action.”
As in neighboring Indonesia, the restrictions mean that Malaysian Muslims will not be permitted to visit family members for tomorrow’s Eid festival, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The partial lockdown, known as a movement control order (MCO) in bureaucratese, has also forced the country’s busy Ramadan food bazaars and night markets to close on the cusp of the most important holiday in the Muslim calendar. This is the second year in a row that Eid has been overshadowed by coronavirus lockdowns.
Malaysia’s lockdown is intended to curtail a steady rise in infection numbers. After surviving a spike of infections in January and February, which prompted Muhyiddin’s government to declare a controversial state of emergency, new coronavirus cases have been steadily increasing for several weeks, consistently exceeding 3,500 per day. In total, Malaysia’s total tally has risen threefold since January.
Muhyiddin’s announcement came a couple days after health Director-General Dr. Noor Hisham told the press that daily cases were on track to reach 5,000 in the coming weeks. Given the presence of infectious new variants of COVID-19, he said that Malaysia faced an India-style epidemic if decisive action was not taken soon.
On Monday, Malaysian health authorities announced 3,807 new infections, bringing the nation’s total to 444,484 confirmed cases, the third highest infection rate in Southeast Asia behind Indonesia and the Philippines. It has also seen 1,700 deaths from COVID-19.
Malaysia is just one of many Southeast Asian nations that are battling against rising COVID-19 numbers. Worryingly, these include several mainland Southeast Asian nations – including Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos – that survived the first year of the pandemic mostly untouched by the virus.
However, the latest lockdown came as a surprise to many, given the fact that MCOs were already in place in many parts of the country, including the capital Kuala Lumpur, and the fact that a senior minister announced on the weekend that there was no need for a nationwide MCO.
In recent days, government critics have attacked the mixed messaging from ministers, the lurching changes to the rules, and the short notice given to businesses, traders, and the general public. “It often feels like the rules can change at no notice, and businesses and people have to be constantly alert for updates,” Serina Rahman of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute wrote today. “No announcement can be taken at face value.”
The Muhyiddin administration is also being attacked for putting politics ahead of public safety. After imposing a state of emergency in January, which was justified on the grounds of COVID-19 but conveniently bought some much-needed breathing room for Muhyiddin’s government, some critics are pointing out that the sweeping state of emergency powers, including the right to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote, have done little to protect the nation from COVID-19.
As Lim Kit Siang, a parliamentarian for the opposition Democratic Action Party, wrote on his blog this week, “It is clear that the Malaysian government has failed in ‘the proof is in the pudding’ test.”
Whether “MCO 3.0” produces a more toothsome pudding remains to be seen. Like many Southeast Asian nations, Malaysia’s vaccine distribution campaign has been sluggish, with just 3.37 percent of the population vaccinated as of May 9. As it stands, Malaysian Muslims will count themselves lucky if they can celebrate next year’s Eid festival unimpeded.