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)

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.”

The lockdown was imposed on March 18 after a surge in cases of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, and has so far been policed heavily, with more than 23,000 arrests for alleged breaches.

Only “essential” businesses were permitted to operate, while restaurants and coffee shops were limited to delivery or takeaway services.

While restaurants and coffee shops were allowed reopen on Monday to in-house diners seated at a distance, many premises were busy sprucing up interiors that had been closed to the world for almost two months.

Asked why his outlet was still only serving takeaway, a waiter at a Kuala Lumpur restaurant, who asked not to be identified, said: “We’re concerned about the health aspect and we’re not fully ready yet.”

Shopping at a health food kiosk on May 4 2020, after Malaysia’s lockdown restrictions were loosened (Simon Roughneen)

Although many restrictions remain – schools and places of worship are closed and team sports are off-limits – a petition against the removal of some restrictions had been signed by almost half a million people by Sunday.

Malaysia had by Monday evening confirmed 6,353 cases of Covid-19, with 4,484 of the cases listed as recovered by the Ministry of Health. 105 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded by the ministry.

The 10 days up to Friday saw new daily cases drop to an average of 57, with the Ministry of Health contending that Malaysia was “recovering” from the pandemic.

In turn, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Friday that some curbs would be lifted – a surprise announcement that came only eight days after he extended the lockdown to May 12.

However Saturday and Sunday saw new daily case numbers rise to more than 100, adding to Malaysians’ apparent wariness, some of which was relayed on social media, about the reopening.

A majority of regional administrations announced they would opt out of the relaxations, which the national government maintains are needed to revive an ailing economy and stave off the 2-per-cent contraction predicted by the central bank.

“Taxes cannot be collected, industries cannot grow, economic growth is stagnant and what we want to avoid is that more businesses have to close down and more workers lose their jobs,” Muhyiddin said on Friday.

Opponents of the government said on Monday that, if some lockdown restrictions can be eased, a proposed one-day parliamentary session scheduled for May 18 can be extended.

A statement by five opposition leaders, including 94-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, “urged” the government to “immediately conduct a full parliamentary session by increasing the number of conference days to a minimum of two weeks.”

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