State legislatures will also be suspended with parts of country heading back into lockdown amid surge in COVID cases.
Malaysia announced a state of emergency on Tuesday morning, suspending parliament and state legislatures, hours before millions of Malaysians were set to go back into lockdown following a surge in coronavirus cases that threatened to overwhelm the country’s public health system.
A statement from the royal palace said the king had agreed to a declaration of emergency following a Monday meeting with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in view of the escalating pandemic and its pressure on the public health system. The emergency will remain in force until August 1, or earlier if COVID-19 cases fall, the statement said.
In a televised speech on Tuesday morning, Muhiyddin said that under the emergency the national parliament and state legislatures would be suspended and elections would no longer be allowed. There would be no curfew and his government would continue to run the country, he said.
“A lot of people are, number one, in disbelief,” political analyst Oh Ei Sun told Al Jazeera. “They are looking to learning more details about how their civil rights might be curtailed.”
On Monday evening, without mentioning the king had already approved his request for an emergency, Muhyiddin announced a lockdown from midnight (13:00 GMT) in eight states and federal territories of the country because hospitals were at “breaking point”. The lockdown includes Kuala Lumpur and the states of Sabah, Selangor, Penang and Johor where the lockdown will remain in force for two weeks until January 26.
Malaysia brought an earlier wave of COVID-19 under control with a strict three-month lockdown under which people were mostly prevented from leaving their homes and gradually eased curbs as cases dwindled. In July last year, authorities announced zero new cases of local transmission.
But the situation began to change in September after an election in the Borneo state of Sabah at a time when cases had already started to increase.
The election took place with coronavirus protocols in force but a large number of campaign events and frequent travel between Sabah and the peninsular – with no quarantine in place- helped seed outbreaks elsewhere.
Opposition politician Liew Chin Tong earlier described the new lockdown as a “kneejerk reaction” calling instead for the government to get private health providers involved in tackling the pandemic, expand testing, enhance contact tracing and improve data transparency.
“There is no livelihood nor economic recovery if we can’t deal with COVID-19 decisively,” Liew said in a statement. “The lives versus livelihood dichotomy is false.”
Under the new lockdown social gatherings will be banned, while restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to offer takeaway meals. People in lockdown areas will not be able to travel more than 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) from their home.
Five “essential” sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and construction, will be able to continue operations under strict conditions. The prime minister did not announce any new initiatives to support people and businesses affected by the lockdown.
Shortly after the announcement, the health ministry revealed that the country had identified its first case of the highly-transmissible UK variant B.1.1.7.
The 22-year-old Malaysian man had arrived back from Britain last month and was diagnosed with the variant on December 28, Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director general of the Ministry of Health wrote on his Facebook page. Malaysia’s borders have been closed to non-Malaysians for nearly a year and any citizens who return are required to complete two weeks in hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Malaysia is due to receive its first shipment of vaccines – from Pfizer-BioNTech – next month and plans to vaccinate about 70 percent of the population.
Earlier on Monday it announced a deal to buy an additional 12.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to add to an initial order of 12.8 million doses. The country is also buying AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to handle and is in negotiations for vaccines produced by Russia and China. It is also part of the World Health Organization’s COVAX vaccine initiative.
As of Monday, Malaysia had reported a total of 138,224 cases of coronavirus and 555 deaths. Three Cabinet ministers have also been confirmed to have COVID-19 this week.
Photo: Malaysia has declared an ’emergency’ as millions of people in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere in the country prepare for another lockdown [Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]