KUALA LUMPUR — An uncanny hush hung over the usually bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday as Malaysia began a two-week partial lockdown aimed at reversing an alarming recent surge in coronavirus cases to nearly 800.
“Sometimes it takes an hour, now the streets are nearly empty,” said Roslee Mohamad, who had just parked after a short drive between two downtown shopping malls in Malaysia’s commercial capital.
The government’s measures, announced Monday night and in effect until March 31, include the banning of foreign visitors and the shuttering of most businesses except for “essential services.”
Inside Pavilion, one of the city’s swankiest malls, most shops were closed except for grocery stores and pharmacies, while customers are barred from dining in restaurants.
“We are just open for takeaway,” said Janet Unite, cashier at a cafe inside the mall.
Unite has lived in Malaysia for seven years as one of the country’s estimated 3 million expatriate workers and had hoped to visit her family in the Philippines at the end of the month.
Now she must await the loosening of international and domestic travel curbs imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic. “My flight is cancelled, I will stay here,” she said.
Alva, a backpacker from Toledo in Spain who arrived in Malaysia four days ago with three friends, said that growing worldwide travel restrictions were sowing confusion and panic. “We wanted to go the Philippines but now I don’t think so,” she said.
Despite Malaysia’s recent spike in cases, returning to Europe – now the “epicentre” of the pandemic according to the World Heath Organization – might be difficult and dangerous.
“In Spain now the situation is not OK,” Alva said, pointing to a news story on her mobile phone showing Spain’s coronavirus cases to have topped 11,000. “We have 90 days of visa,” said Nuno, another of the group. “Maybe we will have to wait here,” he surmised.
On Tuesday, the eve of Malaysia’s part-lockdown, there was widespread confusion about some of the restrictions, with the government only confirming on Wednesday that hotels could remain open.
The police on Wednesday temporarily relaxed new curbs on internal travel as thousands of Kuala Lumpur-based workers sought to leave for their home towns, thronging bus and rail stations.
And some are unsure whether the measures will rein in Malaysia’s coronavirus spread, after positive cases jumped from 197 on Friday to 790 by Wednesday evening – more than three times Singapore’s 266, the second-highest case total in South-East Asia.
Jimmy Wong, a bank official whose office sits in the prodigious shadow cast by the 452-metre-high Petronas Twin Towers, for a time the world’s tallest building, said that “hopefully by today everybody will stay put, otherwise it could keep spreading.”
Like other Malaysians working through the lockdown in what the government deems essential services, Wong will rely on food delivery. “We order to the office so we minimize our movement,” he said.
“Very busy, too much busy,” said Fais Bin Hadi, a motorcycle food courier who said he had done seven deliveries by 11 am, mostly to bank and government offices.
“Sorry, I have to take this,” Fais yelled, interrupting himself mid-sentence as his phone buzzed with another order.