Malaysia’s Third Covid-19 Wave

Malaysia is suffering from its longest, highest and most politically fraught surge in Covid-19 infections.

Shafie Apdal
President of the Sabah Heritage Party Shafie Apdal votes during state elections in Semporna, a town in Malaysia’s Sabah state on Borneo island, on September 26, 2020. The Sabah snap election was the origin of Malaysia’s third and largest wave of Covid-19 infections. (Photo: AFP)

Serina Rahman

27 January 2021

Ayear on from Malaysia’s first Covid-19 infection on 25 January 2020, daily new infections have breached 4000 cases, with a total of 180,455 cumulative cases and 667 deaths. In the first nine months of the pandemic, Malaysia registered 100 Covid-19 related deaths. In the first nine days of 2021, 71 were registered. Eight months ago, Malaysia was being lauded for its handling of the pandemic. Now, the country is faced with its highest numbers of daily new infections. Covid-19 is touching the furthest ends of Malaysia. Even remote indigenous communities have been infected and now barricade themselves from outsiders. 

The third wave’s origins, greater duration and swell, and the three waves’ cumulative costs and their associated movement control orders make it the hardest for Malaysians to bear.

The government linked the first small wave in February to visitors from China, while the second one in March was linked to a large religious conference in Sri Petaling. Now, the average Malaysian wholeheartedly blames politicians for the high infection numbers, pinpointing the Sabah snap elections in late September as the vector for the third wave. Recent reports of hotspots originating from PAS and UMNO events, six cabinet ministers’ testing positive in January alone, and a community cluster started by a politician distributing aid to a flood-hit village strengthen this view.

After initially laying the blame on illegal migrants in Sabah (an election hot-button issue), in mid-NovemberPrime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin conceded that the Sabah election contributed to the third wave.

At the end of July, when Musa Aman’s attempted parliamentary coup led to the dissolution of the Sabah state assembly, Sabah had only 397 active Covid-19 cases. By election day on 26 September, this had swelled to 1547 active cases. Only then was a requirement for a swab test on returnees to Peninsular Malaysia instituted. Home-quarantine for those who tested negative (and could have been asymptomatic) was only ‘recommended’. Many politicians who were involved in election campaigning were seen all over the country immediately after their return. By the end of October, Malaysia recorded a cumulative total of 30,889 cases with 14,519 in Sabah alone. After initially laying the blame on illegal migrants in Sabah (an election hot-button issue), in mid-November Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin conceded that the Sabah election contributed to the third wave.

After imposing a harsh set of lockdown measures through a Movement Control Order (MCO) to quell the second wave, Kuala Lumpur has been less decisive this time. More than a month after the fateful Sabah elections, a less restrictive Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) and the closure of interstate borders was reinstated in early November. Deputy-General of Health Noor Hisham admitted that he would have preferred a second total lockdown instead of the CMCO, but he understood its economic implications.

Then, against medical expert advice, interstate travel restrictions were removed in early December. Covid-weary citizens set off on year-end domestic holidays or returned to rural home towns. Attendance limits on religious and other gatherings were also raised, and DG Noor’s appeals to maintain pandemic-related standard operating procedures and avoid large crowds were often ignored.

Adding to people’s frustration was the acute understanding that summons for breaching these protocols were issued inequitably. Ordinary people were swiftly fined for not wearing masks, but reports of huge wedding festivities hosted by VIPs and other clear breaches of SOPs were all over social media, with few to no subsequent penalties. By Christmas Eve, the daily new infection count was in triple digits and Malaysia had crossed the 100,000 infections mark.

With new daily infections breaching past highs, the widely expected announcement of a second lockdown was made on 11 January. Malaysia’s Agong (King) accepted Muhyiddin’s second request for emergency powers and the declaration of a State of Emergency was made the next day. While this latter step was unexpected, it was largely seen as a political move by the Prime Minister who has a razor-thin parliamentary majority (which he has since lost) and restless coalition parties to thwart efforts by opposing parties to call for national elections. While most citizens were relieved that there would not be elections, politicians on all sides opposed the move. Lim Guan Eng insisted that aid can only be properly disbursed with an emergency parliamentary sitting. Mahathir accused Muhyiddin of being a dictator and Najib Razak decried the loss of democracy in Malaysia. Anwar Ibrahim planned to file an appeal, but ultra-Malay groups threatened to sue him for undermining the Agong’s authority.

The irony in these pronouncements was not lost on Malaysians, but most were more concerned about the return to the original MCO, when many suffered severe financial distress and the difficulties of being unable to move beyond 10 kilometres. This time, however, more leeway was given for businesses and the enforcement of intrastate movement restrictions seems more relaxed. While this does not necessarily bode well for the breaking of the Covid-19 infection chain, economic stagnation could spell death by other means.

Unfortunately, it is the people who bear the brunt of the economic fallout and movement restrictions. While citizens once again scramble to survive MCO 2.0, VIPs are given the best in medical care or are able to quarantine themselves on vast properties in great comfort. The average person might be confined to clean but basic facilities such as at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (MAEPS) quarantine centre.

Factory shut downs because of migrant and workplace clusters have hit daily wage earners hard. Rural farmers and fishermen once again are suffering the brunt of travel restrictions as buyers cannot reach them to buy their produce. Leaked news of a possible total economic lockdown in February if infection numbers do not abate has shaken suffering citizens further.

As the pandemic continues to be politicised, citizens continue to suffer. There is uncertainty over promised vaccines and people’s mental health and socio-economic well-being have deteriorated dramatically. Even the call for the citizenry to help itself, Rakyat Jaga Rakyat, after so many repetitions, seems but hollow comfort in the face of more dark days ahead.

Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Fellow at the Malaysia Studies Programme and the Regional Economics Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2021/23

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.