WHO: Urgent Action Needed to Slow COVID-19 in Southeast Asia

BenarNews staff
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200317-MY-CovidAirport-620.jpg Passengers wait for their turn at the ticket counter at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Tuesday, one day before the government institutes its lockdown, March 17, 2020.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Updated at 8:14 a.m. ET on 2020-03-18

Malaysia reported its first deaths due to novel coronavirus on Tuesday, as the World Health Organization called on Southeast Asia nations to “urgently” scale up measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In some countries, extreme measures were already underway. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared a six-month “state of calamity” to free up funding for containment efforts, as an “enhanced community quarantine” went into effect for 60 million residents of the northern island of Luzon.  Malaysians prepared for a two-week nationwide lockdown beginning Wednesday.

Indonesia confirmed 38 more cases on Tuesday, bringing its total to 172, while Thailand recorded a new total of 177, and Bangladesh reported two new cases for a total of 10.


In Malaysia, Health Minister Adham Baba announced the deaths of two men who had been receiving treatment in Johor and Sarawak states. The victims were 34 and 60, he told reporters.

The 34-year-old patient had attended a four-day gathering at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, according to Adham. He apparently had no other illnesses and was found to have died “purely due to COVID-19.” It was the first death linked to the event.

Malaysia recorded 120 new cases as of noon Tuesday and said that 64 percent of its total 673 infections had been traced to the religious event held from Feb. 27 to March 1.

The Sarawak Disaster Management Committee identified the older man as a pastor at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Kuching, Sarawak. It reported that 193 people he had been in contact with were being quarantined.

Adham told reporters the victim had a history of chronic illnesses including diabetes and hypertension.

The Malaysian government prepared to institute what Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had announced would be “a blanket ban on mass movement and gatherings nationwide” beginning on Wednesday and running through March 31.

Under the ban, no Malaysian or foreign travelers would be allowed to enter or leave the country, and all schools and places of worship would be shuttered. Failure to follow it could result in a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine, according to officials.

The ban was to affect thousands of Malaysians who travel to Singapore for work and tons of goods passing between the countries.

Muhyiddin announced that a committee representing both countries was being set up to address the travel concerns.

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower announced it was working with the private and public sectors to make short-term housing in hotels, dormitories and private residential properties available for Malaysian workers who could not return home.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry announced the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Ministerial Meeting planned for next month has been postponed until June.

Police in Manila gather at a command outpost as they prepare to enforce President Rodrigo Duterte’s Luzon-wide lockdown, March 16, 2020. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]
Police in Manila gather at a command outpost as they prepare to enforce President Rodrigo Duterte’s Luzon-wide lockdown, March 16, 2020. [Basilio Sepe/BenarNews]


In the Philippines, the Department of Health reported two additional deaths, bringing the total to 14, while the number of infections rose by 47 to 187.

“Some infected patients have no relation with other confirmed patients. We need to find out where it came from,” Philippine Health Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told reporters.

Duterte issued a proclamation enabling the government to appropriate funds for containment efforts and ordered all government agencies to “render full assistance and cooperation and mobilize the necessary resources to undertake critical, urgent and appropriate response” amid the spread of COVID-19.

“There is hereby declared a state of calamity throughout the Philippines for a period of six months, unless earlier lifted or extended as circumstances may warrant,” Duterte said.

In Luzon, the main island of about 60 million people, the government has virtually shut down all public gatherings; cancelled classes for a month; allowed work from home arrangements; shut air, sea and land travel to and from the main island of Luzon and canceled all public transportation.

Philippine Airlines announced it was canceling domestic flights through April 12.

Indonesia and Thailand

In Indonesia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a temporary ban beginning Friday on travelers from Iran and European countries hardest hit by COVID-19 – Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the Vatican.

It had already banned people trying to enter the country from China and regions in South Korea hit by the virus.

In Thailand, the cabinet approved a plan to close schools and universities beginning Wednesday through the end of March. The government also postponed the Thai New Year Festival, known as Songkran, scheduled for April 13 to 15.

The plan also closes pubs, entertainment places, massage parlors and cinemas in and around Bangkok for two weeks.

The government urged people to avoid events that draw large crowds, but allowed department stores, shops and restaurants to remain open.

To minimize infection threats from abroad, Thailand now requires medical certificates no more than three days old for travelers from high-risk countries, namely China and its territories, Italy, Iran and South Korea.

In Bangladesh, where two new cases were reported, schools were to close nationwide beginning Wednesday through March 31 in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Scale-up needed: WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday called on Southeast Asia nations to “urgently” scale up measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, with hundreds of cases confirmed in the region and a growing risk of community transmission.

“The situation is evolving rapidly. We need to immediately scale up all efforts to prevent the virus from infecting more people,” Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Southeast Asia regional director, said in a statement from New Delhi.

“More clusters of virus transmission are being confirmed. While this is an indication of an alert and effective surveillance, it also puts the spotlight on the need for more aggressive and whole-of-society efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Some countries were clearly heading towards community transmission, Singh said, adding, “we clearly need to do more, and urgently.”

First detected in Wuhan, China in December, COVID-19 has now spread to 159 countries, areas and territories across the world, causing more than 7,500 deaths and nearly 185,000 infections, according to WHO figures from Tuesday.

Noah Lee and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, Luis Liwanag, Jojo Rinoza, and Jeoffrey Maitem in the Philippines, Rina Chadijah in Jakarta and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.

Updated to add the word "percent" in 6th paragraph.


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