March 18, 2020 and beyond: One year with Covid-19 and life under lockdown in Malaysia

Soo Wern Jun
·6-min read
A man is seen at the balcony of his apartment in Kuala Lumpur as people adhere to the MCO, April 4, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
A man is seen at the balcony of his apartment in Kuala Lumpur as people adhere to the MCO, April 4, 2020. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 — A year has passed since Malaysia first went into a partial lockdown after the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

This saw the public forced into complying with numerous unprecedented measures introduced by the government to contain the virus’ spread.

Here is a recap of some of the ups and downs that the nation has survived.

Movement control order

March 18 marked the first time the country went into a partial “lockdown” due to a pandemic.

The movement control order (MCO) lasted until May 4, when the country reopened economic sectors in phases under the conditional movement control order (CMCO), while disallowing other sectors including sports, social activities and services.

After seeing a steady reduction of Covid-19 cases, the country gradually eased into the recovery movement control order (RMCO) on June 10.

Sungai Buloh Hospital

On March 12, the government made the decision to designate Sungai Buloh Hospital as the nation’s main Covid-19 hospital.

Preparations began in February, with the emptying of the hospital — surgeons had to carry out surgeries elsewhere so that the ICU (intensive unit care) beds of post-op patients could be cleared.

The hospital also started to build capacity when it heard how overwhelmed medical facilities in Wuhan, China — the original epicentre of the virus — were.

Sungai Buloh Hospital could eventually treat 2,000 bedded patients from its original 900-bed capacity.

Its daycare centre was later converted to accommodate ICU beds, and subsequently, the operating theatre too.

In November 2020, the hospital was recognised by the Global Health Awards (GLA) 2020 for its unwavering fight against the pandemic.

Stimulus packages

On March 27, 2020, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced a RM250 billion Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus Package to help those affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

This came after his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s RM20 billion stimulus package announced on March 20, targeted at mitigating the economic impact of the outbreak.

These were followed by several other stimulus packages: for small-medium enterprises (RM10 billion) on April 6; Penjana (RM35 billion) on June 1; a supplementary initiative package (RM10 billion) on September 1; and a new economic package on March 17 this year worth RM20 billion.

Diagnostic laboratories

By June 2020, Malaysia’s Covid-19 preparedness and planning activities led to an 86 per cent increment in diagnostic laboratories.

A joint effort between the MInistry of Higher Education (in charge of university hospitals) and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) mobilised 10 university labs as well as additional labs at the Malaysian Genome Institute under Mosti.

Diagnostic capacity for Covid-19 increased from an initial six laboratories to 43.

Zero local transmissions

On July 1, Malaysia recorded no locally transmitted Covid-19 cases for the first time since March, as it entered its 28th day of RMCO on the same day.

There were only 141 active cases being treated at healthcare facilities nationwide. This included four at intensive care units and two patients requiring ventilator support.

Conferred the ‘Tan Sri’ title

Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was conferred the title of ‘Tan Sri’ on August 17, 2020 for his contributions to fighting the pandemic.

He dedicated his title to the frontliners who fought alongside him to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Recognition by WHO

In September 2020, Malaysia was recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its robust healthcare system and universal health coverage (UHC) in battling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The recognition of Malaysia’s UHC as well as the country’s response and preparedness in handling the pandemic were highlighted in the WHO’s news feed on September 5.

Sabah state election

Following the conclusion of the Sabah state election on September 26, 2020, the state, and eventually, the whole country experienced a surge of Covid-19 cases.

This led to the postponement of the Batu Sapi parliamentary constituency by-election, after the death of its incumbent Datuk VK Liew in October.

#klustermenteri

The hashtag #klustermenteri started trending when Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri tested positive for Covid-19 in October.

The hashtag was revived when a slew of other ministers contracted the virus this January, namely Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed; Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Harun; Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin; and National Unity Minister Datuk Halimah Mohamed Sadique.

Back to MCO

Due to the spike in Covid-19 infections, the government decided to reimplement the MCO to bring down the case numbers which had soared past the 2,000 mark.

The numbers started increasing drastically from New Year’s Eve when the country recorded 2,525 new Covid-19 cases.

Following this, another high was reached on January 12, 2021 with 3,309 cases, followed by 4,029 cases on January 16.

In less than two weeks, the nation was shocked by the news that yet another record high of 5,728 new Covid-19 cases was detected on January 30.

State of Emergency

After the MCO was announced, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong consented to the proclamation of a nationwide Emergency until August 1, or until the current wave of Covid-19 infections have subsided.

Malaysia remains open for business and economic activity continues. However, under the Emergency declaration, Parliament and state legislative assemblies are not allowed to convene until such a time as decided by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Youngest and oldest Covid-19 deaths

On February 4, 2021 the Health Ministry confirmed that Covid-19 had claimed the life of a four-month-old baby, following cardiac arrest.

The deceased, Case 167,032 from Tawau, became the youngest fatality in the country after a one-year-old child died last October.

Last November, the Health Ministry also reported the death of a 130-year-old foreigner in Sabah, said to be the oldest man to have died of Covid-19.

Vaccines arrive in Malaysia

Negotiations to purchase Covid-19 vaccines by the Malaysian government started in July 2020.

By November 2020, the government had managed to secure enough supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — developed by US drugmaker Pfizer and German partner BioNTech — for 20 per cent (12.8 million doses) of Malaysia’s 32 million population.

In the same month, Malaysia also signed a legally-binding agreement with the Covax Facility, a global initiative co-led by the WHO to expand access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Then, in December 2020, the government signed an agreement with UK firm AstraZeneca for the procurement of 6.4 million doses of its vaccine.

In March this year, Malaysia granted conditional approval for the use of vaccines made by AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac, just days after launching its nationwide Covid-19 inoculation programme.

Vaccination rollout

Implemented in three phases, Malaysia’s National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme kicked off on February 24 this year, with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shots.

The first phase, for frontliners, involving 500,000 people, will end in April.

The second phase, from April to August, comprising 9.4 million people, involves senior citizens aged 65 and above, high-risk groups and disabled persons.

As for the third phase, which will start in May and is slated to end in February 2022, covers more than 13.7 million people consisting of Malaysians and non-Malaysian citizens aged 18 and above.

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