Malaysians woke up today at the beginning of a two-week nationwide “total lockdown,” imposed to head off a surge of coronavirus infections that threatens to overwhelm the country’s hospitals and health infrastructure.
The lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on May 28, a date on which that Malaysia reported 8,290 new coronavirus cases, its fourth straight day of record infections. The country would go on to record a fifth record of more than 9,000 cases on May 29.
“If drastic action is not taken immediately, it is of concern that the health care system in our country will collapse and we will face a greater catastrophe,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address.
During the lockdown, which will run from June 1 to 14, only essential businesses will be allowed to operate and people have been told to stay within 10 kilometers of home. Muhyiddin said that if the number of cases falls by June 14, the government will permit some sectors to reopen gradually over the course of the subsequent weeks, paving the way for the full resumption of economic activity.
Malaysia managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic in 2020, but like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, has struggled to contain recent outbreaks that have involved more infectious variants of the virus. In Malaysia’s case, the continued surge may also have been sped by gatherings ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr last week.
The “total lockdown” comes after a partial shutdown came into force on May 12, in part to prevent travel during the Eid holiday, but has failed to curb the escalating case numbers. Today, the government announced a further 7,105 positive COVID-19 cases, bringing its total to 579,462.
Malaysia now stands third in Southeast Asia for total coronavirus infections, behind only Indonesia and the Philippines, but on a per capita basis its infection rate is now the worst in the region. It has also seen the fourth highest death toll among Southeast Asian countries.
The new lockdown is likely to buffet a Malaysian economy that was just recovering from the restrictions that mostly kept the virus at bay last year. The Japanese carmakers Toyota and Honda today announced that they were temporarily suspending production at their factories in Malaysia. Muhyiddin had vowed not to impose more lockdowns after last year’s contributed to the country’s economy contracting by around 5.6 percent in 2020, its sharpest decline since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98.
Muhyiddin yesterday announced an additional 40 billion ringgit ($9.7 billion) in stimulus to offset the economic cost of the new lockdown. The relief includes include 2.1 billion ringgit in handouts, loan moratoriums, grants to small and medium businesses, and salary subsidies for those affected by lockdown measures. Prior to this, Malaysia had already spent more than 300 billion ringgit ($72.6 billion) in stimulus in order to soften the economic blow of the pandemic.
In addition to economic measures, the Malaysian government has said it will set up five more mass vaccination centers in the capital Kuala Lumpur, aiming to speed up its sluggish distribution of vaccines. As of Sunday, Malaysia had vaccinated just over 6 percent of its population, up from 2.7 percent at the beginning of May, according to the Our World in Data tracker.
Malaysia’s COVID-19 surge and slow vaccine rollout are likely to increase pressure on Muhyiddin’s government, which has been criticized for its lackadaisical approach to the pandemic and the erratic nature in which it has introduced restrictions. In recent days, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Guan Eng, the head of the opposition Democratic Action Party, have both attacked Muhyiddin’s centralization of power, and called on him to grant states greater leeway over specific lockdown measures and the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
Opposition figures have also been heavily criticized for the state of emergency that his government introduced in January, which was declared necessary to control COVID-19, but has clearly failed to do so. Even at the time, critics were accusing Muhyiddin of using it to buy time and consolidate his own precarious political position.
The COVID-19 surge has also once again prompted rumblings of dissent from within Muhyiddin’s own Perikatan Nasional coalition. Among the most forthright critics has been former Prime Minister Najib Razak of the United Malays National Organization, who was voted out of office in 2018 and faces prison time for convictions related to the gargantuan 1MDB corruption scandal.
In recent days, Najib has referred to the government’s lockdown efforts as “half-baked,” and accused Muhyiddin of granting multinational corporations special permission to continue operating during the crackdown. The longer that Malaysia’s COVID-19 challenges continue the greater the chance that Najib’s self-appointed position as “complainer-in-chief,” as the South China Morning Post termed him, could be a springboard back to political office.