Anger simmers in Malaysia as Covid-19 surge strains healthcare system

Medical workers collect swab samples from people to be tested for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 11, 2021.
PHOTO: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

Five medical workers in white protective gear battle to resuscitate a coronavirus patient in a quarantine centre on the edge of the Malaysian capital, but eventually fail.

The struggle, caught in a minute-long video clip on social media, exemplifies for many Malaysians their government's latest misstep in its efforts to combat the pandemic, as daily infections and deaths hit a record high in the past week.

"Our boat is sinking. The captain is out of touch," one Twitter user commented on last weekend's video that used the hashtag #KerajaanGagal, or 'failed government', which has been employed for weeks by Malaysians to voice their anger.

Despite a state of emergency imposed in January, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government has been seen as struggling to rein in the infections, triggering public fury.

The health ministry and Muhyiddin's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The patient in the video clip, Abdul Malik Daim, 43, died beside his bunk bed in the quarantine facility on Saturday, following a three-day stay after he tested positive for the disease.

Although he had a persistent cough and an initial screening diagnosed him as being obese with high blood pressure, Abdul Malik was seen as a low-risk patient in the absence of other symptoms, said his brother, Abdul Rahim Daim.

"Perhaps they should have had another check or told the patients to watch out for each other, so that they can get help in time," he told Reuters.

Malaysia has reported fewer cases than neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines, but its ratio of infections, at more than 16,000 per million, is Southeast Asia's highest, data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows.

However, the public anger may not have immediate political impact, as Malaysia's parliament is suspended during the emergency and elections are not due until 2023. Muhyiddin has said early elections will be held when it is safe to do so.

'Joint responsibility'

On Sunday, Muhyiddin said he was ready for criticism so long as the public played its part in cutting the numbers.

"They can call me 'stupid prime minister', it's OK," he said in a televised interview. "I know how difficult it is to manage, but this is our joint responsibility."

Authorities have been criticised for not imposing tougher curbs or taking stronger action against lockdown violations. A vaccination campaign begun in February has sparked accusations that some recipients got lower doses than needed.

Malaysia's surge is straining the resources of hospitals, where occupancy rates exceeded 70 per cent last week in beds and intensive care units for virus patients.

Health experts say Abdul Malik's death was a sign the system was being overwhelmed and called for stronger measures to avert collapse.

Authorities tightened curbs over the weekend but stopped short of a full lockdown, saying some industries needed to remain open.

"Many are concerned that a strict lockdown will damage the economy," said Adeeba Kamarulzaman, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Malaya.

"But the impact is going to be worse, or go on for much longer, if we continue with half-hearted measures."