Malaysia’s Preventable Coronavirus Disaster

28-Mar-2020 Intellasia | EP | 6:02 AM Print This Post

On March 1, Malaysia’s recent political crisis moved to a resolution after nearly two weeks of drama. Muhyiddin Yassin, a member of Parliament, was sworn in as prime minister, ending a chaotic period during which his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, resigned; the ruling coalition disbanded; and numerous politicians switched sides and jockeyed for an audience with the king in the hopes of being appointed prime minister.

That very same day, on the outskirts of the capital, 16,000 members of an Islamic missionary movement called Tablighi Jama’at were wrapping up their four-day gathering at the Sri Petaling mosque complex.

The attendees would pack their bags and go home to communities across Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. And they would take the coronavirus with them. According to Malaysia’s Ministry of Health, at least 943 of the country’s 1,518 confirmed coronavirus cases, as of Monday, have been linked to this single event, now dubbed the “Tabligh cluster.” Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, and Cambodia have traced mounting numbers of confirmed cases back to the Sri Petaling gathering, where about 1,500 of the attendees were foreigners. Eight of 14 coronavirus deaths recorded in Malaysia to date are also directly linked to the Tablighi gathering.

The Tablighi gathering took place at a moment when the pandemic’s global death toll had reached more than 3,000 and numerous nations had already started shutting down public events. But as the days and weeks ticked by, Malaysia dragged its feet. As the number of cases grew, mosques and churches stayed open, sporting events were played, and business continued as usual.

Over the next nine days, as cases quietly spread within Malaysiaand global outbreaks meant that the virus was hardly an obscure phenomenonmembers of the country’s new ruling coalition spent more time figuring out their own political status than they did on the pandemic. The National Alliance Party brings together several key members of the previous administration, including Muhyiddin himself, and former opposition parties like the United Malays National Organisation. It’s an untested group, under a brand-new leader, working to assert authority after the resignation of Malaysia’s most senior statesman. In the end, this political upheaval may have proved a deadly distractionone that lost the country crucial time in which to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“Basically, the first few days were spent putting a cabinet together, with as many positions as possible. The obsession was to cement the coalition,” said James Chin, a Malaysian political scientist at the University of Tasmania. Muhyiddin ended up assembling an unusually large cabinet of 70 members of Parliament. “With regards to the virus, they were given advance warning, but I don’t think they were well preparedpartly due to political drama and partly because health care bureaucrats didn’t think it would spread so fast to Malaysia.”

Chin said health officials continued to work under the false pretext that COVID-19 was a foreign or imported threat and misapprehended the importance of community spread through domestic events like the Tablighi gathering.

“Malaysia’s ongoing political turmoil caused some setback to the fight against coronavirus,” said Swee Kheng Khor, a senior health policy fellow at the University of Malaya. “The nation spent 14 days without a health minister in the transition between governments.”

Adham Baba, the 57-year-old member of Parliament from Johor who was finally appointed as health minister March 9, was trained as a general medical practitioner and served previously in the country’s Higher Education and Youth and Sports ministries.

“He’s a nice enough guy,” Chin said, “but some of his directives have been questionable at best. Public opinion of him is not very high right now, especially after his viral TV appearance.”

Adham went on a public programme called Bicara Naratif last week and advised people to counteract the coronavirus by drinking warm water because it could flush the virus down until it gets eliminated with stomach acidsa baseless claim that came under swift criticism from the public and medical practitioners alike.

“One big miscalculation was that [Muhyiddin's government] had a choice to hire the old health minister backDzulkefly bin Ahmad, who was quite capable and could have smoothed the transitionbut the optics were bad because he was part of the previous administration,” Chin said.

On March 13, the government announced a ban against mass gatherings “literally three hours before Friday prayers last week,” said Karl Rafiq, an independent policy researcher who lives in Kuala Lumpur. “So of course those prayers happened, too, around the country. But that’s our leadership for you.” The following week, on March 18, Malaysia finally sealed its land border with Singapore and enacted a two-week “movement control order,” which bans Malaysians from leaving the country, mandates a 14-day quarantine for those returning from abroad, closes all nonessential businesses and schools, and prohibits all mass gatherings. But even that order was marred by poor planning and communication, leading to surging crowds at the border crossing, police stations, and grocery stores. On March 25, Muhiyiddin announced that the order will be extended until April 14.

A number of steps that are finally in place today in Malaysia likely could have been enacted sooner, including closing houses of worship, tracking Tablighi gathering participants more vigilantly and with more cultural sensitivity, and giving more notice for the movement control order. For some context, neighbouring Singapore raised its domestic risk assessment to “orange” more than five weeks earlier, on February 7, encouraging people to cancel or defer nonessential large-scale events to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The Ministry of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

“You should not change governments in the middle of a health crisisthat’s just not good for the country,” echoed Lainie Yeoh, an art director based in Kuala Lumpur. “Everything they’ve done in response to the pandemic has been a series of very questionable decisions.”

Such frustration is understandable. More than two weeks elapsed between the Tablighi Jama’at event and the movement control order, giving the coronavirus plenty of time to spread. At the event, worshippers slept in packed tents, held hands with each other, and ate from shared plates, one Cambodian attendee told the South China Morning Post.


Category: Malaysia

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