TAIPEI - Malaysia has gone back into a tough new lockdown as COVID-19 caseloads have spiked this month after a relatively calm 2020, and the government's image is beginning to take a hit among people who are confused about what to do.
The Southeast Asian country of 31.5 million people, like many of its neighbors, gained a measure of control on the coronavirus early last year through strict social distancing rules and three months of mandatory shutdowns.
As other countries carry that success into 2021, though, a reopening of interstate travel last month following a snap state election in September with 67% voter turnout allowed infections to surge in Malaysia, domestic media reports say. Travel was restarted to lift the economy.
The coronavirus jumped into prison populations late last year and even infected funeral guests, prompting government advice to keep attendance at funerals low.
Daily caseloads have hit new highs this month, topping 4,000 twice, and the country's second mass stay-home orders took effect Jan. 13.
"Coming from the perspective of a Malaysian, what's unique for us is how we've had this relatively good management of the pandemic last year, where there was a period where we were only recording single-digit case numbers on a daily basis," said Harris Zainul, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.
"So, you contrast this to how it is today, it's quite interesting to see what's happening in Malaysia in terms of the responses by the government to handle the quote-unquote 'good times' and the new challenges that you're seeing right now," he said.
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have gotten COVID-19 under control. Indonesia and the Philippines still struggle, with average daily caseloads more severe than Malaysia's.
Caseloads in Malaysia have topped 4,000 per day twice this month. The cumulative caseload stands at 172,549 with 642 dead.
Public support for Malaysia's parliamentary government hovers above 60% but that's down from around 80% in early 2020, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur.
Media outlets in Southeast Asia quoted Malaysia's prime minister this month saying the health care system had reached a "breaking point."
"The government is trying to put a handle on this situation and in fact there is a sense of urgency now because the hospitals are beginning to be overwhelmed," Suffian said.
Some citizens feel annoyed because they're not sure how to comply with epidemic control rules, Zainul said. Timely information can be hard to find on government websites, easily fanning rumors, he said. A sense of "panic" has gripped many citizens, who at the same time crave human contact that's forbidden now under the stay-home orders, he added.
Yet Malaysians are unlikely to protest at length against the government as long as they get stimulus money, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
"This is a very tame population here - people even if they go to [the] streets it's like for one or two hours," Oh said. "People complain and then the government sprinkles more money and then the complaints will stop for a while."
On Monday the government introduced a fifth economic stimulus package to date, worth $3.72 billion, to fight COVID-19 and offer economic support, domestic news media said. Officials separately plan to recruit 3,500 more medical professionals.