January 22, 2021


SOUTHEAST ASIA: Malaysia, Indonesia struggle to contain Covid spikes before CNY

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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In a note last December, we highlighted the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia as the countries to watch for possible post-holiday surges. Surprisingly, the Philippines appears to have avoided worsening the outbreak. However, the current movement and business restrictions in Indonesia and Malaysia may extend beyond the timeframes set by their respective governments as the two countries struggle to contain their recent outbreaks. Unless the numbers decline significantly over the next two weeks the restrictions may include the Chinese New Year of 12 February, normally a high sales period, and continue through much of the month. One slight advantage Malaysia may have over Indonesia is its significantly better contact tracing and testing system.

In Malaysia, all federal territories and six states are under movement control orders (MCO) from today until 4 February. Only two members of each household are allowed outside, and there are various limits as to who can go to work. Workplace clusters are considered a key source of the spike in Malaysia, mainly factories (the most prominent being Top Glove), plantations, educational institutions, and wholesale markets. Malls can remain open but are practically empty.

Indonesia, meanwhile, introduced a new set of restrictions this week on public activities (PKMM) to replace the large-scale social distancing (PSBB) rules that have been implemented whenever cases spiked. The islands of Java and Java are currently covered by these restrictions. PKMM is a slightly less stringent regime that allows for more movement compared to PSBB. It emphasizes health protocols and testing for domestic inter-provincial travel, as well as limits on public transportation and workplaces; schooling will be done online. Indonesia’s positivity rate is above 25%, while the number of tests has remained stagnant, meaning that current outbreak reports are behind the actual trajectory of the pandemic. Malaysia is also posting a positivity rate of around 9%, above the WHO recommended level of 5%.

In both countries, authorities are warning of hospitals near or at capacity, and are building or considering using alternative facilities such as sports stadia and even railway carriages. One problem for Jakarta is that Covid patients from other provinces are seeking treatment in the capital, further exacerbating the strain on its healthcare system. Jakarta, which has roughly 10 million people, reported today that it had about 1,000 beds and 192 intensive care beds remaining for Covid patients. This is about 13% of the total beds for Covid. Other provinces on Java island are at 70% – 80% capacity for Covid beds.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin may be in a worse-off position politically compared to President Joko Widodo, however, because of the spike in coronavirus cases. Opposition politicians continue to attack the nearly seven-month state of emergency that he requested from the king as a way of avoiding a political day of reckoning, especially with the possibility that he may have already lost his parliamentary majority. This pressure is only likely to increase once Malaysia is able to bring the current spike under control. In contrast, while Widodo also faces criticism for the government’s response, his control of his parliamentary majority remains intact, as evidenced by the smooth confirmation this week of his former adjutant as the country’s next police chief.

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