COVID-19: Malaysia Starts Distributing Millions of Face Masks to Households

Noah Lee, Nisha David, Ronna Nirmala and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Dhaka
200408-MY-virusregional-1000.jpg Homeless people sleep in cubicles at a temporary shelter in Kuala Lumpur during a government-imposed restriction on movement to control the COVID-19 pandemic, April 7, 2020.

Malaysia’s government announced Wednesday that it had started handing out more than 24 million face masks nationwide to help contain the coronavirus, as health authorities confirmed that COVID-19 infections had surged past 4,000.

Confirmed coronavirus infections have been reported in 212 countries and territories since China detected its first cases in December. As of Thursday, officials in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have confirmed a cumulative total of 13,314 cases, with 517 deaths for the four Southeast Asian neighbors.

“A total of 24.6 million face masks are in the process of being distributed to the State Disaster Management Committee for distribution to the districts,” Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a statement, underscoring a change in the global stance on the wearing of masks and face coverings as the latest step to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The process of distributing four face masks per household has started in Peninsular Malaysia and would begin in Malaysian Borneo on Friday, Ismail said, adding that special air force flights would speed up shipments.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced his government’s initiative to distribute face masks on March 23, after health officials warned of a “tsunami” of infections if people did not follow restrictions on movement.

“I want to say, we will distribute it freely to all Malaysians in need,” Muhyiddin told a news conference at the time. “It is a government contribution.”

Malaysia, the world’s largest maker of medical gloves, has no shortage of protective equipment for its health workers, Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director-general of health, said during a news briefing on Wednesday. The country has imposed a lockdown until April 14 to contain the pandemic.

Noor warned in a Facebook post last month that Malaysia was facing a slim chance of breaking the chain of infections.

“Failure is not an option here,” he said. “If not, we may face a third wave of this virus, which would be greater than a tsunami, if we maintain a ‘so what’ attitude.”

With 4,119 confirmed infections and 65 deaths as of Wednesday, Malaysia remained the country with the third-highest caseload in Asia, behind China and South Korea. The Philippines reported 106 new cases, taking its tally of cases to 3,870 with 182 deaths.

Tighter restrictions in Indonesia

Next-door neighbor Indonesia has ordered its citizens to wear face masks when they leave their homes.

The country has only identified 2,956 coronavirus infections with 240 fatalities, despite recent comments from Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan that some of 283 dead people who were buried in the capital in March alone could have been victims of the virus.

Baswedan told reporters on Wednesday that tighter restrictions would be imposed in the Indonesian capital starting on Friday, including a ban on gatherings of more than five people and the closure of places of worships.

“If there are more than five people in a gathering, they will be prosecuted,” he said.

Almost 1.5 million people have been infected by the coronavirus across the world and more than 87,400 have died, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University.

Health authorities across Southeast Asia have linked hundreds of suspected infections to gatherings organized by the India-headquartered Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur in late February and early March, and at a religious gathering in New Delhi last month.

Koreeyoh Samae (right) helps Rokeeyoh Abu check if money from government aid was transferred to her bank account, in Yala, Thailand, April 8, 2020. [BenarNews]
Koreeyoh Samae (right) helps Rokeeyoh Abu check if money from government aid was transferred to her bank account, in Yala, Thailand, April 8, 2020. [BenarNews]

In Bangkok, Thai health authorities reported 111 new infections on Wednesday, bringing the country’s total coronavirus cases to 2,369. Officials also reported three new deaths – a Russian, an Indian and an American – bringing the nation’s accumulated toll to 30.

As part of financial packages to help cushion the pandemic’s economic impact, Thai officials said Wednesday that 280,000 people who were not enrolled in the nation’s social security program had received their first monthly subsidy of 5,000 baht ($153).

The subsidies will be distributed for three months and are aimed at helping about three million self-employed Thais. In late March, the government asked Thai citizens to sign up online for the package, which would allow recipients to apply for an additional 10,000 baht ($305) in loans. But 24 million people signed up within the first few days, officials said.

Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister, told BenarNews that the economic benefit should be expanded to cover 24 million people.

“There are about five million people who are in the social security system and seven million people who are outside the social security system. There are also 12 million farmers, and how about those company employees whose salaries were either reduced or were stopped? They should have been compensated too,” he said.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, where the government has faced criticism for its slow testing of suspected infections, authorities on Wednesday sealed off the industrial city of Narayanganj and more than 50 neighborhoods in nearby Dhaka, the capital, to contain the pandemic.

Bangladeshi health authorities reported 54 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the South Asian nation’s confirmed COVID-19 infections to 218, with 20 fatalities so far.

“After Dhaka, Narayanganj is the hotspot of coronavirus infections in Bangladesh,” Mohammad Salim Reza, the additional deputy commissioner of Narayanganj, told BenarNews, referring to the city about two million people.

“We have sealed off city corporation areas and adjacent sub-districts,” he said. “No people will be allowed to enter or leave. The army, police and other law enforcement agencies have been patrolling the areas under lockdown.”

He said health authorities had confirmed 37 COVID-19 infections, including six deaths, in Narayanganj.

Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, and Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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