The spread of coronavirus has prompted widespread wearing of facemasks in Kuala Lumpur (Simon Roughneen)

KUALA LUMPUR — Responding to a surge in coronavirus cases over the past week, the Malaysian Government has ordered sweeping travel restrictions, ordered most business except for shops to close, and banned foreigners from entering the country until the end of the month.

In a 10pm address to the nation, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that the lockdown, which includes closing mosques across the Muslim-majority country, would apply from March 18-31, during which Malaysians will not be permitted to travel abroad.

“The current situation of the outbreak requires drastic action to be taken to recover the situation as soon as possible,” Muhyiddin warned, adding that essential government services and banks will remain open.

Malaysia reported 125 new cases of coronavirus on Monday evening, taking the country’s total to 553, 338 of which have been traced to an Islamic ceremony held in Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts in late February that was attended by an estimated 15-16,000 people and which spawned cases among worshippers from Brunei, Cambodia and Singapore.

Earlier in Monday, Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri said that activities in mosques, including Friday prayers, will remain suspended for 10 days.

“The pandemic is here,” Health Minister Adham Baba said at an earlier Monday press conference. At a simultaneous press conference Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin described the case numbers from the Islamic ceremony as “a second wave” and told Malaysians “do not worry too much” about food supply after reports emerged of panic-buying ahead of a rumoured lockdown.

The lockdown follows restrictions introduced last week, including ban on “mass gatherings” as well as travel bansa affecting hard-hit countries such as Italy and Iran.

Malaysia’s government estimates gross domestic product to have contracted between 0.8 and 1.2 per cent since the coronavirus outbreak began in China, Malaysia’s biggest trade partner. On Monday Muhyiddin said that the government would give 600 ringgit (139 dollars) a month to families hit by job losses linked to the virus.

Neighbouring Singapore – which has imposed travel restrictions, though not an outright ban – recorded its biggest single-day increase in coronavirus cases on Monday, with the 17 new diagnoses announced by Health Ministry pushing the city-state’s total to 243.

Singapore’s total is the second-highest in Southeast Asia after Malaysia, though no coronavirus-related deaths have been reported in ither country.

Follow us on Twitter