Missteps ahead of partial shutdown risk Covid-19 spiraling

Nigel Aw

Modified 18 Mar 2020, 2:57 am

CORONAVIRUS | Last Sunday, news of overwhelmed hospitals and dozens of daily Covid-19 deaths in distant lands became more real for Malaysians as the country, for the first time, reported a triple-digit rise of Covid-19 cases in a day.

That night, calls to lock down the country trended on social media, particularly Twitter. Prior to that, the highest daily case was 41. It was a turning point for the country's battle against Covid-19.

The escalation was due to the 16,000-strong religious gathering in Sri Petaling mosque, where people from across the country and around the world, gathered for four days before returning to their hometowns, allowing the virus to spread in and outside of Malaysia.

In announcing 190 new Covid-19 cases - the highest yet - last Sunday, Health Minister Adham Baba said the government would meet the next day on introducing further measures to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

Anticipating curbs, some people began panic buying on Monday morning.

But this quickly escalated in the evening when Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, after chairing the Economic Action Council meeting and unveiling economic measures to help Malaysians cope with Covid-19, said there would be a "big announcement" at night after he meets the National Security Council (NSC), but did not provide details.

Social media was abuzz about a potential shutdown and fresh foods flew off the shelves at hypermarkets and supermarkets, and long queues were seen at checkout counters.

Finally, on Monday at 10pm, Muhyiddin announced there would be a movement control order - Malaysians won't be allowed to leave the country nor foreigners be allowed in, non-essential businesses and services must close and most importantly, a ban on public gatherings - beginning March 18 until March 31.

Despite Muhyiddin assuring that supermarkets and convenience stores will remain open, the panic buying did not stop.

On Tuesday, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Alexander Nanta Linggi urged people against panic buying, assuring that there was sufficient food supply.

The message about risks associated with large gatherings at hundreds of supermarkets across the country - the very thing the order intends to stop to minimise the Covid-19 spread - appeared lost.

But that lack of clear communication would appear mild as the events of Tuesday unfolded, culminating in more and even larger unintended gatherings - conditions that...

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