KUCHING: The Movement Control Order (MCO) – now in Phase 3 – was extended a second time until April 28 after it was determined that the country’s Covid-19 infection curve was nowhere near flattening.
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in announcing the extension on April 10 said the decision was in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) view against lifting the MCO too early as it would lead to the virus spreading quicker as seen in some countries.
By that day, Malaysia had recorded 118 new cases, taking the total number of confirmed infections in the country to 4,346, as well as three new deaths which brought the overall number of fatalities to 70.
“If the trend continues to drop, we can curb it from spreading, but we cannot take it easy. The extension is to allow health workers to curb the pandemic,” said Muhyiddin.
The MCO, implemented on March 18, was initially supposed to end on March 31 but was extended for the first time to April 14.
Under the second phase, a 10km travel restriction was imposed with leeway given if essential services or items were not found within the vicinity.
The public was also barred from carrying passengers in their vehicles except for emergencies, with a 10pm-6am curfew for all vehicles including those used for e-hailing.
Hypermarkets, grocery stores and petrol stations meanwhile were only allowed to operate from 8am to 8pm, while in Sarawak it was from 7am to 7pm.
Muhyiddin also said schools would continue to be closed until the situation stabilised, adding that the Education Ministry would implement home-based learning for students until the MCO was lifted.
He said selected sectors would be opened in stages and operate according to standard operating procedures.
On March 19, the National Security Council released a list of non-essential services allowed to be open or operated within certain limits during the MCO period.
However it was still very restricted and the only way for certain sectors not included in the allowed list to have a chance to continue operating was to apply to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (Miti).
As the MCO entered its third phase on April 15, the government decided to loosen the MCO by adding several more economic sectors to the list of those allowed to operate.
They were hardware shops, electrical and electronics shops (excluding telecommunications equipment as well as ICT equipment shops) and full-service laundry shops.
Barber shops and hair salons were initially included in the list but later removed following objections from the public and the industry itself.
Senior Minister (Security Cluster) Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob meanwhile said there were still many Malaysians who flouted the MCO during the first two phases.
Due to this, he announced that the third phase of the MCO would see police enforce stricter rules against those who flout the order, where they will be arrested immediately instead of just being issued a compound notice.
“Maybe RM1,000 is not high enough to scare potential MCO violators. So from tomorrow (April 16), police will arrest those who violate the MCO and charge them in court instead of issuing compound notices.
“Let the courts decide (on the punishment),” he said in his daily press conference on the MCO, adding that under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988, offenders who were found guilty can be jailed.
As the MCO approached its one-month mark since it was first enforced on March 18, several more new economic sectors were allowed to operate during Phase 3 which resulted in more vehicles being seen on the road, including in Sarawak.
Sarawak Deputy Police Commissioner Datuk Dev Kumar last Friday said the rise in vehicles were of people in the ‘allowed’ sectors commuting to and from work.
Nonetheless, the number of those caught violating the MCO continues to add up each day, with 83 arrested across the state between 8am Saturday and 8am yesterday.
In total, Dev Kumar said a total of 1,094 people in Sarawak have been arrested for violating the MCO, out of which 593 have been charged in court.
Another challenge faced by the Sarawak government during this third phase was the cancellation of flights to the state by the country’s three airlines.
Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas had said the cancellations would make it difficult for Sarawak to combat the spread of the pandemic because many of its essential supplies, especially those used to combat Covid-19 such as medical equipment, as well as food were being shipped by air cargo.
Following discussions between the state and federal Transport Ministry and Malaysia Airlines, it was announced April 15 that minimal flights would be reinstated between Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak to complement domestic MASwing flights within the state.
Uggah had also said the state was also negotiating with AirAsia to resume some of its flights minimally, connecting Sarawak to other parts of the country.
More MCO extension?
Several quarters continue to express concerns that lifting the MCO at the end of April 28 would still be too soon.
Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia should study carefully the gradual lifting of any measures, including the MCO, with a trial-and-error approach due to there being no Covid-19 vaccine in sight yet.
He believes the outbreak will continue for a long time and that it would not be possible to pinpoint a certain month or timeframe when the MCO can be lifted.
At the same time, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali on April 17 suggested that Malaysia may extend its travel ban beyond April, but with more economic sectors open for business to recover the nation’s economy impacted by the MCO.
“Based on our (cabinet) discussions, the Movement Control Order may still be in place but we may have to see what are the areas that we can relax and open up, to strike a balance between the requirements of the health of the people and also the economic priorities,” he told Reuters.
With the possibility of the MCO being extended beyond April 28, Uggah, who is also Sarawak Disaster Management Committee chairman, had proposed for four taskforces to face the possibility of the next wave of the pandemic in the state.
The taskforces will be headed by Minister of Local Government and Housing Dato Sri Dr Sim Kui Hian, and former Sarawak Health directors Datu Prof Dr Andrew Kiyu and Dr Jamilah Hashim.
On April 18, Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said any decision to extend the MCO will be based on science and facts.
He said that while the country might be doing well in terms of the number of new cases, there should be no complacency in the fight against the spread of Covid-19.
“We need to put precautions in place... life will not be the same when we complete the third MCO.
“That means we have to comply with certain health regulations and precautions so we can reduce the risk of infection,” he said.
Dr Noor Hisham also said that before looking at the possibility of ending the MCO, the Health Ministry needed to come up with an exit strategy first.
“So, what is important before we look at ending the MCO, we must have an exit strategy and among the indicators are a reduction in cases that are still being treated for infectivity,” he said.
He said the Health Ministry will look into three pertinent factors before coming to a decision on whether to extend the MCO – virulence level, infectivity rate, and economic consequences brought about by the pandemic.
He said these factors were also taken into consideration by the WHO before declaring Covid-19 as a public health emergency of international concern.
At the moment, Dr Noor Hisham said it is still too early to determine if there is a need to extend the MCO.
The ‘new normal’
On April 10, Muhyiddin told Malaysians to start getting used to the ‘new normal’ of more hygienic and contactless greeting habits to curb the spread of Covid-19.
This meant that Malaysians must adapt and change their habits from what used to be considered as normal.
“For example, shaking hands. Before, shaking hands when meeting someone was a normal habit. If you don’t shake hands, you could be considered as awkward or impolite.
“But now it is different. We cannot shake hands when we meet someone to avoid getting infected by the virus. Maybe we should just bow as a sign of respect. This is the new normal,” he said.
Muhyiddin said the other aspects of the new normal Malaysians should get used to is the frequent washing of hands.
“Use soap, hand sanitisers and such. And also use face masks.
“There are many other examples which I do not need to mention because I am sure you all understand the meaning of this ‘new normal’ that we have to practise in our daily lives for the future,” he added.
Another ‘new normal’ that the people have had to adapt to is working from home.
Environment Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang told Bernama on April 1 that those who work from home (WFH) during the implementation of the MCO must continue to think and act proactively in completing their routine tasks.
In fact, he said mobile devices could be used as a tool to complete the tasks, even from home.
“Almost all employees nowadays have mobile devices. An administrative assistant or office secretary, for example, can use the devices to complete their pending office work or prepare specific letters as directed by their bosses. These mobile devices will make it easy for them,” he said.
The former Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) vice-chancellor also stressed that WFH staff should always have their thinking cap on and make full use of the opportunity.
To overcome boredom and avoid falling asleep while working, Zaini also suggested that they make their ‘workstation’ at home more comfortable, conducive and motivating.
“If you are working at a reading corner, try to give it some extra furniture and lighting. Take a break and walk around the house in between to avoid boredom and feeling sleepy,” he added.
What lies ahead
It is uncertain when the Covid-19 pandemic will be completely over in Malaysia, and when the MCO will be lifted. But what is certain is that after only a month, it has greatly impacted the nation both economically and socially.
Dr Noor Hisham has said that the people need to remain cautious as there is yet to be a vaccine for Covid-19.
“We must be cautious because it is a new virus. We must learn from China, from their experience, in dealing with the virus. Their experience is important,” he said.
China meanwhile sent an eight-member medical consultant expert team to Malaysia on April 18, to render their support to the country in the fight against Covid-19. The team is also expected to extend assistance to Sarawak and Sabah.
China’s ambassador to Malaysia Bai Tian, on the official Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia, said the team would tentatively be in Malaysia for two weeks.
He said the team was organised by the National Health Commission of China, and the eight individuals were selected by the health commission of Guangdong Province.
“China has since provided support to countries all over the world including Malaysia by sharing their experiences, providing supplies and other assistance,” he said.