Will movement control be able to combat Covid-19?

Ragananthini Vethasalam

After two consecutive days of a major spike in Covid-19 cases, Malaysia joins a number of countries imposing some form of lockdown. – EPA pic, March 17, 2020.

THE imposition of a movement-control order effective tomorrow is seen as a last-ditch effort to counter the spread of Covid-19.

Malaysia is now entering a vital phase of the pandemic – mitigation – and this is the most severe level.

The decision to impose the movement-control order comes on the heels of Malaysia’s Covid-19 infections escalating to 553 yesterday, following two consecutive days of a major spike in cases.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin yesterday announced the order from March 18-31 to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

There is now a ban on all mass movements and gatherings, including religious, sports, social and cultural activities.

All houses of worship and business premises will be closed, except for supermarkets, public markets, grocery stores and convenience stores selling daily necessities.

This is an explainer on the movement-control order and how it worked elsewhere.

The order

It is called the restricted-movement order and imposed under the Control of the Spread of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 and the Police Act 1967. It is effective from March 18 to March 31 and affects the whole country.

What it means to Malaysians?

It totally restricts all movement and mass gathering in the whole country, involving religious, sports, social and cultural activities.

This means all places of worship and businesses, such as restaurants, pubs, bars, cinemas and others, are closed. According to the Prime Minister’s Department, restaurants can only be opened to cater for food deliveries with no dine-ins allowed.

The exceptions are markets, stores, provision shops, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.

Malaysians will also be barred from leaving the country and those who have just returned must undergo health screening and be self-quarantined for 14 days. All foreign visitors will be barred from entering Malaysia.

Schools to be closed

All educational centres from kindergartens to primary and secondary schools, boarding schools, international schools, matriculation centres and tahfiz schools (private and government) will be closed during this period.

All institutions of higher education centres and vocational schools will also be closed.

Essential services still available

The lockdown only impacts all non-essential government and private premises. Essential services, such as water, electricity, power, telecommunications, postal, transportation, oil and gas, banking, medical services, pharmacies, prisons, ports, airports, security, defence and food supply will remain open.

The Wuhan example

Other affected countries have taken stern measures following the Covid-19 pandemic, including by sealing off their borders and restricting movements to fight the virus.

Wuhan in China, which was the epicentre of the outbreak, was the first city to be locked down.

On January 23, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan and its neighbouring cities in Hubei province, stopping people from moving freely.

Strict quarantine and travel restrictions have also been put in place across China.

Certain cities around the world have also declared states of emergency and lockdowns.

How about other countries?

Italy, which saw more than 2,000 deaths from Covid-19, has gone on a nationwide lockdown as it became one of the worst hit nations outside China. The lockdown was initially confined to the northern part of the country, but it has since been extended to include the whole of Italy.

Spain, France and Denmark have also imposed lockdowns, restricting the movement of about 200 million people in Europe.

Spain, which is the next in line to Italy in terms of worst-hit countries in Europe, has banned people from leaving their homes except to buy essential supplies and medicines, or for work.

In France, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and most shops are now shuttered.

Over in the US, New York mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered restaurants, bars and cafes to only sell food on a take-away or delivery basis and ordered the closure of nightclubs, cinemas, theatres and concert venues.

In Los Angeles, an executive order has been issued by mayor mayor Eric Garcetti to close bars, nightclubs, entertainment venues and gyms until March 31.

In Asia, Filipino police and army have started sealing off Manila. Residents can only leave their homes to go to work or run errands, such as medical emergencies.

An information board showing cancelled flights at Frankfurt airport, Germany, yesterday. Germany has more than 6,700 confirmed Covid-19 cases, making Europe now the worst-hit area after China with the virus. – EPA pic, March 17, 2020.

Supporters of the order in Malaysia

Klang MP Charles Santiago said Malaysia must impose a lockdown for the next two weeks to contain the spread of the virus.

A lockdown will compel people to stay at home unless they have to go out for food, medicine or in the event of an emergency, adding that the measure can be reviewed after two weeks.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) also called for a lockdown saying that Putrajaya’s response has been woefully inadequate.

MTUC said the government should also consider extending the current one-week school holiday break, which should also be applied to private schools, colleges and universities.

Experts question movement-control order

Experts, however, said there are other measures that could be considered instead of the restricted-movement order.

Public Health Specialist Association president Dr Zainal Ariffin said lockdowns could hurt the economy. The government could instead consider mobilising security agencies, like the People’s Volunteer Corps (Rela) and police, to track down close contacts of Covid-19 patients, he said.

In the same report, former president of the Federation of Islamic Medical Associations, Dr Musa Mohd Nordin, said Malaysia could emulate the South Korean way of containing the virus, adding that the country has been successful bringing down the numbers to fewer than 100 from 900 a day.

“We should continue to screen, through temperature checks and rt-PCR (reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction) testing, to detect the positive cases and isolate them.

“Self-quarantine should be advised in appropriate clinical settings,” he said.

Meanwhile, a simulation test conducted by the Washington Post showed that social distancing will outperform any quarantine to control Covid-19 infections.

The daily quoted professor of global health law at Georgetown University, Lawrence O Gostin that lockdowns are “very rare and never effective”. – March 17, 2020.

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