Businesses shut as Malaysia enters second virus lockdown

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malls and many businesses in Malaysia shuttered Tuesday as the country began its second nationwide lockdown to tackle a worsening surge of the coronavirus that has put its health care system on the verge of collapse.

The Southeast Asian nation imposed a partial lockdown on May 12, banning all social activities but allowing the economic sector to operate. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin caved in to growing calls for large-scale lockdown after daily infections breached 8,000 on Friday and soared to a record 9,020 on Saturday.

“If this drastic action is not taken immediately, it is feared that our health care system will collapse and we will face a bigger catastrophe,” Muhyiddin said in a national broadcast late Monday.

This will be the country’s second nationwide lockdown since the start of the pandemic and it risks derailing its economic recovery. To help cushion the fallout from the new lockdown, Muhyiddin announced a new 40 billion ringgit ($9.7 billion) stimulus package.

Businesses will be closed for two weeks until June 14, except for those in 17 essential sectors including banking, media, food and beverage. Over a dozen manufacturing sectors are also allowed to operate at 60% capacity, including electrical and electronics and oil and gas. The plantation, agriculture, fishery and critical construction sectors are also exempted.

Schools have already moved to online classes and inter-district travel has been banned since early May. Restaurants can stay open for pick-up and delivery services. Only two in a household can travel to buy necessities within a 10 kilometer (6 miles) radius, and three for medical reasons. Residents can jog in their neighborhood but no cycling is allowed.

In Kuala Lumpur, police checked vehicles entering the city. Some 800 roadblocks have been set up nationwide, especially near fringes of towns where compliance is low. Although there is no curfew, nearly all businesses allowed to remain open must shut by 8 p.m.

Infections in Malaysia have climbed since many people breached safety rules to return to their hometowns during the recent Muslim Eid festival. Daily cases crossed 6,000 on May 19 for the first time and topped 9,000 within 10 days. Malaysia’s tally has surged five-fold since last year to 572,357 infections since the pandemic began and 2,796 deaths.

Although daily infections slid to the 6,000 range since Sunday, health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah has warned the country is “not out of the woods” as more infectious variants are present in nearly every state.

With intensive care wards hitting maximum capacity, the Health Ministry has warned doctors may eventually have to make the hard decision of allotting beds to COVID-19 patients with a better potential to recover. The military has set up field hospitals in some areas and several government hospitals are using shipping containers to store bodies as fatality climb.

The government is ramping up its vaccination campaign by setting up mass vaccination centers, as well as allowing drive-throughs and the use of mobile trucks in some places. Hundreds of private clinics and hospitals are also authorized to provide vaccinations, while businesses have taken the initiative to speed up inoculation for their staff.

Malaysia hopes to inoculate 80% of its 33 million people by the end of the year. Vaccination is voluntary and so far only about 3 million people out of 12 million who have registered have received at least one dose.

The new stimulus package announced by Muhyiddin late Monday included handouts for the poor, subsidies and loan moratorium aid for businesses.

Muhyiddin also said that he and his Cabinet ministers will donate three months of their salaries to the nation’s COVID-19 fund.

Malaysia’s economy has contracted for four straight quarters through March.

Eileen Ng, The Associated Press

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