Updated at 11:40 a.m. ET on 2020-10-07
The Malaysian government announced targeted lockdowns in various parts of the country on Tuesday as it scrambled to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases linked to prison clusters and a state election held last month.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the measures as Malaysia reported a daily record-high of 691 coronavirus cases and the death of a 1-year-old from the disease, and while he and 13 ministers were under home quarantine orders. The ministers had attended a meeting with a government official who later tested positive for the virus.
“So far, we are not considering implementing a nationwide movement control order (MCO) or total lockdown,” the prime minister said in a nationally televised speech on Tuesday. “This, if implemented again, can cause the country’s social system and economy to collapse.”
On March 18, the government established a total lockdown but began easing restrictions in May.
Responding to social media posts that questioned if officials were treated differently, Muhyiddin assured the public that the government did not practice double standards in enforcing quarantine compliance.
“I myself am under home quarantine after chairing a meeting attended by a COVID-19 positive minister,” he said. “As the prime minister, I’m not exempted from the SOPs [standard operating procedures] set by the Health Ministry.”
The government plans to implement what it calls a targeted enhanced movement control order focusing on specific areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, Muhyiddin said. Apart from the cluster set off by the Sabah state election in late September, clusters have been recorded at several prisons across the nation.
Muhyiddin did not name what areas would face quarantine orders, but the government on Wednesday reported targeted lockdowns will go into effect on Friday in Klang in the state of Selangor along with three districts in Sabah state – Sandakan, Papar and Tuaran.
Previously, officials announced targeted lockdowns in Kunak, Lahad Datu, Tawau and Semporna districts in Sabah through Oct. 12 and in the state's Kota Kinabalu, Putatan and Penampang districts beginning Wednesday.
The coronavirus cases reported on Tuesday brought the nationwide number to 13,504 since the pandemic began in the Southeast Asian nation. The death of the baby and three others brought that number to 141.
Globally, more than 35.5 million have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 1 million have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
“We do not call this surge of cases a result of failure. This is a third wave. Meaning, this is not continuity from the previous cases, but a new surge,” said Shahrizal Azwan Samsudin, secretary-general of the Malaysian Relief Agency, a local NGO. “So, this does not mean that the movement control order had failed, but this is a spike of new cases.”
Because prisons are confined spaces infections spread like wildfire, according to Shahrizal, who is a doctor.
The Prisons Department announced it was taking measures to stem the COVID-19 spread.
“And, second, is the spread of COVID-19 from the Sabah election to the Peninsula. I believe this has yet to peak because that is usually two to three weeks after,” Shahrizal told BenarNews, adding that Malaysians could not let down their guard.
In his address to the nation, Muhyiddin acknowledged that the Sept. 26 state legislature election in Sabah, one of two states in Malaysian Borneo, had contributed to the rise in COVID-19 cases.
“I am aware that the Election Commission had set certain SOPs to contain the spread of the disease, but unfortunately, not all were followed,” he said.
“For instance social distancing – when I was campaigning, I observed that many people were not complying with this measure. Although almost everyone was wearing face masks, many were seated close to each other in cramped places,” he said.
Since the Sabah outbreak, the government stepped up measures including increasing the number of security personnel and mobilizing naval assets to safeguard borders, Muhyiddin said.
Prisons Department measures
Meanwhile, the Prisons Department said that along with outbreaks in facilities in Sabah and Kedah, COVID-19 cases were recorded in Penang, Selangor, and a correctional center in Perak.
“At the moment, the number of active COVID-19 cases among prison inmates and staff nationwide stands at 1,126 cases – up 453 cases from yesterday’s 673 cases,” the department said in a statement.
Prisons Department director-general Zulkifli Omar announced the implementation of “drastic” measures, including sending light drug offenders to national service camps and releasing prisoners with short sentences, subject to conditions
“Inmates who have been sentenced to less than one year in prison and have less than three months to be served will be released,” the statement said, noting they must pass certain criteria including testing negative for the coronavirus.
More than 11,000 inmates could be considered for release.
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
Clarification: This story was updated to list locations of targeted lockdowns.