UN warns of surging meth use across Asia, despite Covid-19 – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — The market for synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, continues to grow in Asia despite the coronavirus crisis, a UN report said. “While the world has shifted its attention to the Covid-19 pandemic, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region,” said Jeremy Douglas of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The findings, according to a new report by the agency, that relies on “data from 2019 and in some cases up to the first quarter of 2020,” are something of a surprise. “It is hard to imagine that organized crime have again managed to expand the drug market, but they have,” said Douglas, the agency’s Bangkok-based representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Police in Bangkok arrested three men on Thursday while confiscating over a million meth pills, while recent weeks have seen Myanmar’s military and police in Hong Kong seizing drugs and manufacturing equipment in separate raids.

Singapore’s home help migrants face ‘hidden plight’ due to Covid-19 – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — A lockdown imposed in Singapore to stall the spread of the new coronavirus has led to increased incidences of domestic helpers being overworked or abused, according to a group that operates a helpline for migrant workers. The Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME) said on Friday that calls to the helpline had jumped by 25 per cent since the restrictions were introduced on April 7. Most businesses were closed, forcing Singaporeans to work from home. In turn, some domestic workers – often young women from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines who cook and clean for the city-state’s well-to-do families – face “increased work hours as employers are home at almost all hours of the day, leading to an increase in household and caregiving duties,” HOME stated.

Pandemic panic could see surgeries and vaccinations postponed – dpa international

Waiting area inside the traditional Chinese medicine section of Tung Shin Hospital in Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — The coronavirus pandemic could see 28.4 million elective surgeries cancelled or postponed worldwide, with potentially deadly consequences for cancer patients, according to a report published on Thursday. “Patients’ conditions may deteriorate, worsening their quality of life as they wait for rescheduled surgery,” said Aneel Bhangu, consultant surgeon at the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Global Surgery at Britain’s University of Birmingham. “In some cases, for example cancer, delayed surgeries may lead to a number of unnecessary deaths,” said Bhangu, one of a group of doctors and academics across 11 countries who authored the report, which was published in the British Journal of Surgery. Based on information shared by doctors at 359 hospitals in 71 countries, the study was prompted by Britain’s National Health Service announcing in March that “non-urgent” surgeries would be cancelled for a period of 12 weeks.

Malaysia to allow some mosques to reopen for Friday prayers – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian authorities will allow 88 mosques to hold Islamic Friday prayers this week in a relaxation of curbs imposed on places of worship due to the coronavirus pandemic. Up to 30 people will be allowed enter the mosques to pray as long as they “observe social distancing, practice sanitizing and get details [of those who enter] for record purposes,” said Zulkifli Mohamad, Malaysia’s Minister for Islamic Affairs. The reopening of some mosques comes ahead of the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, scheduled for May 24. Around 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 32 million residents are Muslim. A strictly policed lockdown was imposed in Malaysia on March 18 following a spike in cases of the novel coronavirus.

Singapore’s Covid-19 caseload tops 25,000 with more migrants infected – dpa international

A Singapore mall popular with expats from the Philippines (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore’s Health Ministry on Wednesday announced 675 new cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, taking the national total to 25,346. Almost all the wealthy city-state’s cases are among low-wage foreign workers confined to dozens of crowded dormitories. Health Ministry data published on Tuesday showed 22,334 dormitory cases, while on Wednesday the ministry added that “the vast majority” of the day’s new cases are in the workers’ accommodation. Singapore aims to test all 323,000 dormitory residents – mostly young men working in sectors such as construction and hailing from countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar. 

Lockdown leads to temporary re-wilding in Malaysia, but at a cost – dpa international

Shutters down on a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur during Malaysia's lockdown (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Dubbed one of the world’s 12 “mega-diverse” countries by wildlife experts, Malaysia is home to an array of instantly recognizable species, many of which have been driven to near-extinction by deforestation. A Google project in 2013 showed Malaysia losing almost 15 per cent of its jungle over the previous decade – much of it cleared to make way for plantations generating the palm oil that makes up around 4 per cent of exports. Although land clearances have slowed, decades of deforestation have left marquee species – such as the orangutan and local variants of elephant, rhinoceros and tiger – listed as threatened or endangered by monitoring organizations such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The animals have been granted a respite of late, with their human tormentors transfixed by an epidemic that prompted an unprecedented response: shutdown.

Singapore’s Covid-19 cases top 20,000 as pandemic batters business – dpa international

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore confirmed 788 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, taking the total to 20,198, the second-highest reported number in East Asia after China. The ministry stated that the “vast majority” of the new cases “are work permit holders residing in foreign worker dormitories.” Singapore has the world’s fourth-highest gross domestic product per head, according to an International Monetary Fund ranking, and depends on 1.4 million foreign workers – 320,000 of them living in cramped dormitories that have become virus hotbeds – to help run its open economy. Singapore diagnosed its first case of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, as far back as January 23. The wealthy and trade-dependent city-state was in March lauded for keeping case numbers relatively low, even as the pandemic spread around the world – with just 1,000 confirmed by April 1.

Singapore debates sale and slaughter of wild animals in wet markets – dpa international

Frogs for sale in a Singapore wet market (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Singapore will consider banning selling and killing live animals in wet markets, the country’s environment minister told the legislature on Tuesday. The practice is common in parts of East and South-East Asia, but has come under scrutiny due to the possibility that the new coronavirus pandemic could have originated in a wet market in Wuhan, China – or in a nearby laboratory. In Asia, a wet market is typically a bustling open-air bazaar where freshly caught fish and meat and new vegetables are sold. Amy Khor, Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources, said that “international benchmarking and scientific evidence” would be used to determine the risk of transmission of dangerous viruses due to the practice.

Citing Covid-19, Pacific trade chiefs seek freer flow of vital goods – dpa international

Hand sanitiser and face masks for sale in a Kuala Lumpur supermarket (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Trade ministers representing 21 Asia-Pacific countries said on Tuesday that they “will work to facilitate the flow of essential goods and services” needed to fight the new coronavirus pandemic. The statement, released by the Singapore-based secretariat of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) body, listed “medicines, medical supplies and equipment, agriculture and food products” among those essential goods. APEC includes China, Japan and the US, the world’s three biggest economies. Other APEC members include Australia, Canada, Indonesia and South Korea, all of which have gross domestic products exceeding 1 trillion dollars. Tuesday’s statement marks a rare apparent consensus between China and the US, which have been embroiled in a trade war since shortly after Donald Trump became president in early 2017.

Malaysians cautiously embrace lifting of lockdown – dpa international

Customers lining up at a mobile phone shop inside a Kuala Lumpur mall on May 4 2020 (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — After seven weeks of being told by authorities to stay at home, Malaysians tentatively resumed some aspects of pre-coronavirus life on Monday. The part re-opening came after a weekend of nationwide debate about whether the removal of some lockdown restrictions in South-East Asia’s third-wealthiest economy was premature due to health concerns, or was overdue because businesses are suffering. In Kuala Lumpur, a usually heaving high-rise city of 8 million people, Monday’s morning’s downtown traffic and footfall were light compared to pre-lockdown levels. Ng Chee Lim, a taxi driver, said he was glad the restrictions had been loosened, adding: “I think the situation is under control, and we need to get the economy going again.”