Harris Zainul was quoted by the South China Morning Post

  • The country, once the worst hit in Southeast Asia, is now relaxing measures after a stunning turnaround in fortunes
  • But the new prime minister is not getting the credit. Rather, attention is now returning to his democratic legitimacy

By Tashny Sukumaran,  16 May 2020

As Malaysia settles into a new normal with a relaxed, conditional lockdown set to last until early next month, its citizens are preparing to resume work amid signs that its efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19 are bearing fruit.

The nation’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has earned widespread praise for reversing the fortunes of what was at one point the worst-hit country in Southeast Asia, although detractors blame its strict two-month lockdown for worsening socioeconomic inequalities.

Cases are now tapering off, with the nation recording just 36 new infections on Friday – a far cry from the hundreds recorded daily in March. There have been 112 deaths, making its mortality rate 1.63 per cent. The rate in South Korea, another country widely praised for its response to the virus, has been estimated at between 2.25 and 2.63. Also on Friday, the national mosque reopened for the first time since the lockdown began.

However, public health experts are cautioning against complacency and urging the government to improve its stretched health care system to head off future crises.

“That we’ve kept the pandemic more or less under control for now is a testament to our public health care workers. They’ve been working tirelessly to their own detriment. Part of our new normal has to include giving our public health care system the financial resources it needs,” said analyst Nazihah Muhammad Noor of Khazanah Research Institute, a non-profit think tank.

“We need to increase the number of permanent posts for health care workers, so we can alleviate some of the burden faced by the health workforce and prevent burnout. We also need to increase our funding on preventive health services, which has the potential to reduce the need for curative care later on.”

Since the lockdown was announced in mid-March, there have been attempts to improve public health literacy and implement strict social distancing measures. Shopping malls and grocery stores have introduced temperature checks and made masks compulsory.

Meanwhile, the health ministry is in talks with Chinese companies developing a Covid-19 vaccine to carry out clinical trials in Malaysia and to use the antiviral drug remdesivir to treat patients. Although the nation has favoured contact tracing and targeted testing over mass testing, its locality-based approach and cordoning off of “red zones” is also thought to have helped keep infection numbers down.

On a national level, the country swiftly shut its borders and brought in a 14-day quarantine period for returning Malaysians – one of the measures that set it apart from nations such as Japan, which experienced a second wave of infections after lifting its lockdown and reopening borders.

Unlike nations such as Britain, Malaysia insisted that every individual who tested positive for Covid-19 be admitted to an isolation ward in a designated hospital and treated until they were free of the virus. Those who test positive do not even drive themselves to the hospital – ambulances are dispatched to their homes.

Public recognition and praise of health care workers has reached fever pitch, with the nation’s top health official Noor Hisham Abdullah achieving a cultlike status. Many Malaysians fete him as a national hero, create fan art and videos and send food to the health care workers he leads.

Meanwhile, as Covid-19 numbers drop, public interest is returning to politics and there is increasing dissent against what some people see as a “back-door government”. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came to power after a week-long political imbroglio and a series of defections that effectively set aside the results of the 2018 general elections, in which Malaysia changed its government for the first time in over six decades.

“Malaysia’s success is largely due to the competence of the Ministry of Health technocrats and medical front-liners as well as cooperation of the vast majority of the population. The government, however, appears amateurish,” said political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University’s Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia.

This, he said, was due to its limited talent pool “resulting in inexperienced, flamboyant or frivolous figures holding portfolios and making themselves objects of ridicule” as well as the internal fragility of the ruling coalition.

Faux pas by new government faces, such as Health Minister Adham Baba who was widely ridiculed for saying that drinking warm water could kill the virus, and a slew of politicians caught breaching movement control orders have decreased public trust in politicians.

At the same time, multiple raids by the authorities targeting foreign workers and turning away boatloads of Rohingya refugees have earned widespread criticism from both human rights watchdogs and public health experts. The immigration raids ran the risk of undoing the nation’s good work, said Nazihah.

“Even under normal circumstances, foreign workers are less likely to seek health care due to financial constraints and fears of arrest and deportation,” Nazihah said. “With Covid-19, it is in everyone’s best interest that foreign workers feel safe to come forward to get tested and treated if necessary. As such, there is an urgent need to give amnesty to undocumented migrant workers, including putting an immediate stop to raids.”

Although the authorities have defended these decisions as necessary to stamp out Covid-19, Wong said the moves were meant “to divert public anger and frustration” and draw attention away from the economic hardship citizens now faced.

Nazihah said that while the authorities might believe the immigration raids would have a positive effect by creating job vacancies for locals, the danger was that screening and contact-tracing processes would be undermined.

Now, with a no-confidence vote looming when parliament resumes and Covid-19 seemingly under control, the ruling coalition will face questions of democratic legitimacy by the people while hanging on to government with a razor-thin parliamentary majority.

“Whether the Muhyiddin Yassin administration will be able to make the tough decisions needed on other, yet critical facets of combating Covid-19 is still up in the air,” said analyst Harris Zainul of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Some medical professionals have been surprised by the abrupt manner in which restrictions were lifted in favour of restarting the economy. They say that, with businesses allowed to reopen and gatherings of up to 20 people permitted, it will be crucial to quickly identify and isolate any new outbreaks.

“We trust some level of risk analysis has been carried out by the right experts in these decisions announced by the [prime minister], but this is still highly empirical in nature, and not an exact science,” said Roslina Manap, a senior respiratory physician and deputy dean of the National University of Malaysia’s medical faculty.

“There should be a contingency plan to act on quickly should the situation regress and not evolve as hoped for. There must be tight monitoring of enforcement of standard operating procedures and social distancing measures by the authorities, and vigilance in looking out for a third wave of Covid-19 cases by expanded and strategically targeted community testing.

“The people must realise they are being empowered to behave responsibly. Malaysians from all walks of life must rise to the occasion.”

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on 16 May 2020

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