Malaysia ready to shut down most of its economy if MCO fails to curb Covid-19: Sources

Malaysian Health Ministry updates consistently show that workplaces are becoming the primary source of Covid-19 clusters.
PHOTO: Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia is preparing to shut down most of its economy if coronavirus cases continue to surge, sources say, after existing movement controls have so far failed to contain the spread of infections.

Several industry and government sources have confirmed to The Straits Times that the Health Ministry wants to impose a total lockdown on all economic activity except for essential services, once the current movement control order (MCO) expires on Feb 4, if there is no improvement in case numbers.

Daily infections have remained above 3,000 for the past week, and hit a record of 4,275 cases on Saturday (Jan 23). Another 3,346 new cases were reported on Sunday, bringing the tally to 183,801 infections since the pandemic began.

But other government ministries are seeking a compromise, and believe limited business activities can continue in tandem with essential services despite the pandemic.

Major industries such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture and various services have been allowed to continue operating under the existing MCO imposed across the country, except in some districts in Sarawak state.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti) gave stakeholders in the manufacturing sector – which is linked to nearly a third of Malaysia’s around 300 Covid-19 clusters – early warning of the potential shutdown during a brainstorming session last Friday.

Notices sent by the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers and EU-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry to their members – seen by The Straits Times – outlined some preliminary suggestions for stricter standard operating procedures (SOPs) as a pre-emptive move to avoid being shuttered next month.

These include creating quarantine spaces in worker dormitories, halving the number of workers in transport vehicles, and taking full responsibility for workers’ activities, even if their housing is outsourced.

When contacted, a Miti spokesman said it “will share details in due time” if there are any updates to Covid-19 SOPs.

“We are seriously doing our best because a total lockdown will affect the economy,” a government official said on condition of anonymity as discussions are confidential. “There are various new efforts proposed to the Health Director-General but they are not keen. To the Health Ministry, a lockdown is the only answer.”

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Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah, who heads Malaysia’s response to the pandemic that has so far killed 678, with a high of 18 deaths recorded last Friday, did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.

But the ministry’s data consistently shows that workplaces are becoming the primary source of Covid-19 clusters. Since last Friday, three-quarters of the 32 new clusters have been from worksites.

Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz had admitted that the MCO could dampen hopes of an economic recovery this year, after Malaysia, like many other countries, suffered a recession due to the pandemic. 

However, he said the government was maintaining its forecast of 6.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent growth for this year. That projection would be severely in doubt should more economic sectors face shutdown in the coming weeks.

Malaysia first imposed severe restrictions in March last year – dubbed MCO 1.0 – that kept people in their homes, closed schools and shut businesses, and successfully reduced the number of daily cases to single digits.

When the controls were reintroduced on Jan 13 this year – MCO 2.0 – after daily infections persisted at the four-digit level for two months, they mainly restricted just social and retail activities. 

Since then, however, the number of active coronavirus cases has climbed from over 32,000 to reach more than 42,000 cases, far exceeding the around 34,000 beds reserved for Covid-19 patients nationwide. 

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This article was first published in The Straits Times Permission required for reproduction