Total lockdown in Malaysia: Third time’s the charm (or not)?

File photo of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Artmopro
File photo of Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Artmopro

Malaysia is going through a total lockdown for the third time since the pandemic started last year. What’s different this time around? Polite answers from those I have spoken to range from “not much” to “could be better.”

Many governments around the world are trying their best to protect their people from the coronavirus epidemic. But in my opinion, Malaysia can do better. At this point, I feel that the people around me are already doing their best to look after themselves – lockdown or not. It is as though Malaysians have started to isolate themselves even before the government imposed its most recent Movement Control Order across the nation. 

Following several rounds of restrictions on travel, businesses, and gatherings, Malaysia still reported a high of 9,020 COVID-19 infections on May 29 and a record 126 deaths on Wednesday. This could get worse, according to the health ministry’s projections, which said that the nation’s daily COVID-19 cases may hit 13,000 in two weeks if COVID-19 measures were not strictly followed. Things are so bad that refrigerated shipping containers are being used at some hospitals to store the bodies of those who died of COVID-19 before cremations or burials. Overall, the country has clocked 587,165 cases and 2,993 deaths, as of June 2.

In a bid to flatten the curve, the government decided to tweak its strategies, with the Prime Minister’s Office recently suggesting a three-phase lockdown. Phase One: the ongoing total lockdown from June 1 to 14. Phase Two: reopening some economic sectors that don’t require large gatherings for a month. Phase Three: reopening nearly all economic sectors with strict procedures in place. 

Sounds like a solid plan, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the beef:

Essential or not?

What the government considers as an essential service that’s allowed to operate amid tighter restrictions has been confusing – and sometimes, illogical. 

During the first lockdown last year, hardware shops weren’t allowed to open. So if a pipe bursts in your house, like what had happened to me, you’re out of luck. Fortunately, the repairman I hired to fix the issue had the specific tools needed to solve the problem. 

In my opinion, essential sectors should cover all branches of the medical sector, safety and defense forces, housing maintenance, banks, anything relating to animals, as well as emergency services such as – car servicing, e-hailing, and public transportation. They can operate at minimal bandwidth. Essential services should also cover food & beverage, excluding specialty stores. Factories that manufacture materials or products for those essential sectors should also be allowed to function. 

There is no harm in looking to others for pointers on what essential services should be. In New Zealand, many of those services I mentioned were listed on the government’s COVID-19 online platform – and they rarely change it, unlike in Malaysia. 

Just this week, the National Security Council, or NSC, decided to take out breweries from its list of essential businesses allowed to operate during the lockdown. This came after pressure from the public who deemed alcohol as non-essential when they found out that the government had approved the operation of Carlsberg’s brewery. Such changes send a bad message to businesses that need certainty. Having to deal with the government’s U-turn on various other decisions, won’t help. 

This lockdown will no doubt cost the government tens of billions of ringgit, and the finance minister saying on Tuesday that we have more than RM200 billion left to spend this year brings little to no comfort at all since we’re still six months away from the end of 2021. Who knows how many more lockdowns there would be?

Travel permits the new bane of work life

Then there’s the issue of obtaining a travel permit from the government to go to work – but how? 

Over the weekend, NSC said that the International Trade and Industry Ministry will issue travel permits for employees of companies across sectors deemed essential through a one-stop center, superseding previously issued permits that would expire on May 31. New travel permission letters will bear a QR code to ensure authenticity, while those who travel with permits issued before May 31 face fines.  

This left many scratching their heads over travel applications already submitted through a separate system known as the COVID-19 Intelligent Management System (CIMS) 3.0 applicable to the various ministries overseeing the 17 sectors deemed essential to operate during the lockdown.

Business owners frustrated over the lack of clarity on which agency to approach were left further confused, leading to a slew of complaints on social media. Worsening the situation was the small window for employers to obtain travel permits for their workers. A spokesman for the International Trade and Industry Ministry had said that registrations would only begin hours before the lockdown started. 

If given the time, the one-stop center can be an amazing platform. But the main issue here is that Malaysian government agencies rarely see eye to eye to begin with. How do we achieve anything when we’re not even on the same page?

Job security and the forgotten middle class

Coronavirus fears aside, job security – or the lack of it – has put many Malaysians on the edge of their seat during this pandemic. We know that the lower-income group is largely taken care of, but it seems that the middle-income group, which makes up 40% of the population, has been forgotten. The anxiety is real, and I’m sure some of you reading this will feel the wave of emotions as well.

In the latest COVID-19 financial relief package, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced financial aids and loan assistance to the lower-income, but nothing for those in the middle-income group, who still have to pay taxes in the middle of the economic crisis.

A recent poll of 1,251 people aged 18 to 61 by the state news agency showed that while over 90% were in favor of a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, more than half said that it would affect their family’s income. Over 60% feared losing their jobs; a considerable portion of them was also afraid they would run out of basic necessities while others worry they could fall into depression. 

“Lives over livelihood” is a phrase that has been said many times over. But when there’s no livelihood, there is no life.

Other stories:

Streets are quiet again in dreary KL as Malaysia’s lockdown drags on

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