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Malaysia's CoVid-19 lockdown.

Nigel Morris-Co...

If it were not for one grossly irresponsible group, Malaysia's anti-viral policies would have been remarkably successful. But the long term effects might be problematic.

In Malaysia, with a population of around 28 million, a concentration into urban centres has taken place over the past twenty or so years. This has led to a massive change in the habits of ordinary people. Vast shopping centres dominate the skylines of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and its suburbs as well as other major centres of population. In some areas, small, independent shops have all but disappeared from streets which have, in turn, come to be dominated by vast office complexes which, as new ones appear, are often turned into hotels. Hotels are running below occupancy due to an over-building of apartment blocks not for residents but as serviced apartments - originally in a hotel format but now individually owned by those running a business through couch-surfing apps like AirBnB, Hotels.com and Booking.com . Add in that Malaysians, unlike their neighbours in nearby countries, absolutely refuse to walk and insist on taking their cars, which they often park illegally, and leaving the engines running to keep the air-conditioning working and there's an issue that means that Malaysians like to congregate. That might sound like a negative and all of those examples above demonstrate the worst side of that congregation. And yet, the other side is that the congregation - at least until racism rears its head - means that there is a a remarkably social environment, albeit one that is reduced by the concentration in shopping centres and the loss of services within community as shop-houses are demolished for yet another high-rise that won't house residents.

It is into this mix that a handful of travellers brought coronavirus CoVid-19. The government acted very quickly and there were a tiny number of cases, proportionate to the population. Even today, if one removes the known effects of one source, relative to population size, Malaysia has a very small problem. But one cannot ignore that one source: a religious group held an event for what it calls missionaries. 16,000 people met in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. Approximately two thirds of Malaysia's cases can be directly traced to that event. The attendees left and, being asymptomatic, did as missionaries do - they spread across the region taking their deadly payload with them. Not only have hundreds who attended the event contracted CoVid-19, they have spread it and remain at risk of spreading it across Malaysia and other countries. Then, later, the organisers ran an other event with many of the same attendees, in Indonesia. The Sulawesi authorities "asked" them not to hold it. Those involved claimed it was God's will that it be held, one being quoted in a newspaper as saying "I'm more afraid of God than I am of the virus.". Indonesia's government, paranoid that religious activism might result in unrest - as it has done many times before - did not ban the event. Now Malaysia faces the re-import of the virus if it did, indeed, spread at that event.

Malaysia's response to the news of the virus was swift: it imposed border restrictions and issued the advice that there should be extensive hand-washing and face masks should be worn to protect others if there were any signs of a cough or a cold. At that time, the best efforts of the global medical community had no effective test for the virus amongst those who were asymptomatic. The only thing was to wait and see and the waiting was 14 days. As countries across the region began to impose periods of self-quarantine on those arriving from infected countries, Malaysia did the same and it worked very successfully as it has done in Taiwan and Hong Kong, about which more later.

Because of the blanket coverage and the endless circulating of information, mis-information and dis-information via social media and messaging apps that three months ago, hardly anyone outside Wuhan in China had even heard of what would become known first as "novel coronavirus" and later as "CoVid-19." Indeed, it has become a topic of such domination that it's almost difficult to remember a time when we didn't have it. We live in a world where there is a presumption that there is always someone to blame, partly so that we can say "it's not my fault." We live in a world where a hashtag can re-write history. And we live in a world where everyone considers themselves an instant expert because they have read what Google's algorithm deems worthy of being on the front page of search results - whether or not it's true or valid.

In Taiwan and Hong Kong, strict border controls obviated the need for territory-wide lockdowns. Malaysia and Singapore, working in lock-step because of the dependence of both in the southern border crossing, were similarly successful. Soon, only domestically transmitted cases arrived. But then citizens who had been in affected areas began to return home. In Taiwan and Hong Kong - and incidentally in China where it is said the virus originated although that is now in some doubt - some are bringing the virus with them.

But, as with the religious group, it is domestically transmitted amongst those who are in close proximity.

Malaysia again acted fast. All public gatherings were banned. Within a couple of hours, religious leaders made their own announcement - the ban did not include e.g. services and prayers. The government quickly reaffirmed that such were included. All businesses other than those in a small range of essential services were ordered to close at 48 hours notice. Food and beverage outlets were ordered to close to those "sitting in" but could provide a takaway-only service. Supermarkets, "convenience stores," pharmacies and petrol stations (with their attached shops) were permitted to open. Hotels were told to close - an order that was quickly varied to permit those already in the hotel to remain but there were to be no new bookings, no extensions of stay and all the F&B outlets must close with only room service being made available. Entire shopping centres closed except for those permitted businesses, creating an additional problem - with so much trade no concentrated in those shopping centres to the exclusion of traditional road-side streets, were were people to go for supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.

Some rules made no sense: Malaysian "coffee shops" run by a wide range of backgrounds are the cornerstone of society - or were until so many were demolished. They have, in many cases outside the city centre, been replaced by open ground floor premises in modern brutally designed versions of the old shophouses. They are allowed to sell takeaways. But that's only a fraction of the food and beverage business - there remains a vibrant "hawker" style and while the carts don't move around, they are still very popular. And while some have a few plastic tables around, most only do takeaway business. Those stalls, which sell fresh food, fruit and vegetables, have been ordered to close. Yet they are the places where those who do not cook buy their food every day. This rule has been a mistake. It is they more than the 100 seat premises that have, in some cases for generations, provided exactly the service that the government wants to be provided.

When the lockdown was announced there was the inevitable panic buying but by that time, supply chains had recovered from the early onset paralysis that had resulted from China's initial response and supplies, both imported and domestic, had been restored. Within a few days of the lockdown starting, some supermarkets had long queues at opening times but others were fully stocked and had only a handful of customers. The government instigated a daily SMS to all accounts providing updates on rules and other matters.

However, when the government said do this, some authorities said do that. Kuala Lumpur City Council's enforcement officers visited eateries, ostensibly to make sure they were not serving sitting customers. They told owners that tables and chairs had to be stacked so that no one could sit; then they announced, contrary to government advice, that those going out for permitted shopping must wear masks and instructed the police to deny entry to supermarkets anyone who was not wearing a mask (a far greater risk arises in the fresh produce section where plastic bags are provided and, because they are difficult to open, people lick their fingers and then touch the fruit, etc.) The government has issued another statement on the wearing of masks, following global best advice.

Armed police and soldiers - carrying automatic rifles not only sidearms - man roadblocks. They stop and check all vehicles except delivery vans and food delivery service motorbikes. As it became clear that some families were using shopping as a trip and some were using it as an excuse to meet and socialise, a new restriction was added - only one person per family is allowed to go shopping. A week after interstate travel was banned, local roads are now all but deserted. Those walking in the streets are more likely to be homeless than going shopping. Constant messages on TV tell people to stay at home and not to visit friends.

Even so, there are problems with compliance: one family decided to host a lockdown lunch for a group of friends. Another organised a cocktail party for residents of an apartment block, arguing with the building's management and security officers that it was their home and they could do as they liked. A group of elderly men decided that they had lived through enough hard times and this was just another one and pulled tables and chairs from a stack and staged something of a sit in. Others challenged the decision to close public spaces, in particular parks. Surely, they insisted, going out for a walk in the fresh air is a good thing. Yes, the government countered - it is until you walk with someone who has the virus and doesn't know it yet.

But these are the exceptions. Across the country, as a policy of warnings changed to one of arrest and charge / fine, less than 100 people were picked up on the first day of that policy and the publicity for it appears to have been effective.

Malaysia's lockdown is due to end on 31 March. Very few expect that it will. The borders will remain closed for several weeks, at least to those with no right of residence. Although the government is providing financial relief and Bank Negara, the central bank, has issued a directive that there is to be a moratorium on all loans for six months (excluding credit cards but there is a provision that balances may be converted to three year term loans - without, it appears, the sensible corresponding measure that cards should be cancelled or limits reduced to a nominal amount of, say, MYR150 - about GBP30) to prevent an increase in credit), businesses cannot afford to stay closed. While office workers can, in some cases, work from home, the vast majority of businesses have no infrastructure to permit that for an extended period - and because they are locked down cannot put one in place.

On an annual basis, Malaysia's population doubles from tourism and most of them spend mat least some of their time in Kuala Lumpur. Long before the lockdown, even before the borders were closed, F&B outlets in Kuala Lumpur were beginning to struggle because their business models depend on a regular flow of tourists.

Now, almost a week into the lockdown, Kuala Lumpur is all but deserted. Buses and trains run only for what would be rush-hour if there was any rush. Taxis are rare. But some people are clearly just out for a drive: they go to convenience stores and sit outside, engine running, and eventually move on.

The economic cost of the lockdown is enormous and the disruption to life is immense. But it's the people in the cars, sitting alone, that are the next cause for concern. It's not because of the virus - it's because no one knows what effect such an event is having on the psyche of those who are forced to live in small premises with large families that, usually, don't all come home at the same time or on those that live alone and have lost the social interaction that many have lived with all their lives. A woman in her 80s, using an umbrella as a walking stick, made her daily grocery run: she was asked if she'd like to get some stocks in so she didn't have to come out every day. No, she said: if I don't come here, I'd never talk to anyone.

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