Malaysia’s intensive care units are struggling to cope with a sharp increase in Covid cases, the health director general warned, as the country prepares to enter a near-total lockdown starting Tuesday.
Malaysia managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic last year, but has struggled to contain a recent outbreak that has been fueled by more infectious variants of the virus and exacerbated by meetings leading up to Eid al-Fitr.
This month alone, more than 1,200 deaths have been recorded, compared to 471 for all of 2020. Last week, Malaysia reported record daily cases for five consecutive days and announced its largest daily increase since the pandemic began on Saturday, when 9,020 new infections were reported.
Health Director General Noor Hisham Abdullah said that although additional beds had been created in the ICU, some facilities had already reached full capacity. “This has led to patients being treated in normal wards,” he said in a statement on Facebook on Sunday. The increase in cases over the weekend meant the number of seriously ill patients was expected to rise further, he added.
Additional containers have also been sent to hospital morgues, which are struggling to cope with the surge in deaths.
Under the new lockdown rules, to be introduced on Tuesday, only two people from each household will be able to go out to buy essential items or seek medical treatment within 10 km of their home. Sports activities such as jogging that do not involve physical contact are allowed, but only between 7 am and 8 pm Schools and shopping centers will be closed.
Much of the manufacturing sector will be allowed to continue to operate with a reduced workforce. This includes companies that produce rubber gloves, electronics, oil and gas, chemicals, and food and beverages.
Malaysia is among several Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand and Singapore, that managed to keep the virus under control last year but have reported sudden spikes in cases. The region faces new and more infectious variants, but is struggling to quickly implement vaccination campaigns.
The Malaysian government has said it will establish five more mass vaccination centers in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and that private doctors will join immunization efforts to increase capacity. So far, almost 6% of the 32 million inhabitants of the country have received at least one dose of vaccine. The government reached 107,000 doses a day last week and aims to increase daily vaccinations to 150,000 doses.
Human rights groups have warned that Malaysia’s health campaigns are likely to be hampered by its hostile treatment of migrants and refugees. The immigration department announced that it will carry out raids and surprise checks during the two-week lockdown.
Many migrants fear coming forward for health care, even though the government has announced that everyone will qualify for vaccinations regardless of immigration status, said John Quinley, senior human rights specialist at the NGO Fortify Rights.
“Those are well-founded fears, that people will be sent back to countries of origin that have ongoing wars and persecutions, or simply that they will not be able to financially support their family because they have been detained,” he said.
Last year, Malaysia arrested thousands of migrants and held them in overcrowded detention centers, which subsequently experienced outbreaks of the virus. It is feared that additional arrests will only lead to more clusters inside cramped facilities.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism