Malaysian leaders draw flak after post-election virus jump

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysians took to social media on Friday to lambast politicians for violating social distancing protocols and refusing to self-isolate, after the country recorded its second-highest spike in daily coronavirus cases following a state election last week.

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a protective mask walks past Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s office, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Putrajaya, Malaysia September 24, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

The Southeast Asian country has reported a steady climb in cases after an increase in travellers to Sabah, on Borneo island, ahead of its state polls last Saturday.

Malaysia recorded 287 new cases on Friday, the highest daily rise since it started tracking the spread of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government has been criticised for failing to impose controls such as mandatory screening for travellers from Sabah prior to the election, and for allowing people to cut short a 14-day home quarantine order if they tested negative for the virus.

Muhyiddin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but health officials have defended not announcing control measures sooner, saying authorities did not want to discourage Sabah voters from returning home to cast their ballots.

However, health ministry director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said on Friday that the spike in Sabah could have been mitigated by compliance with guidelines set by the ministry on minimising physical contact.

“The issue now is the non-compliance to SOP at every level,” Noor Hisham said at a news conference, referring to the ministry’s guidelines.

“We are not blaming (anyone), but we are reminding… we hope that all of us learn this lesson so we do not repeat this mistake again.”

From the early stages of the pandemic, Malaysia’s health ministry prescribed guidelines to minimise the spread of the virus, which included wearing face masks, maintaining a distance of at least 1 metre between people and washing hands regularly with soap.

The hashtags #PoliticiansCauseVirus and #MinisterCluster were trending on Twitter in Malaysia on Friday after ministers and political figures were reported attending public events upon their return from campaigning in the state.

At least two politicians tested positive on the campaign trail, while cases linked to travel to Sabah have been recorded in all 13 Malaysian states.

“Why didn’t you quarantine yourself for 14 days?” Twitter user @safiqshahid asked Federal Territories Minister Annuar Musa who posted photos of himself at a business congress after returning from Sabah this week.

In a statement, Annuar’s press secretary denied that the minister had breached quarantine rules, saying he had already completed self-isolation and tested negative days before the election.

Some Twitter users also raised concerns over risks posed by national elections, which could be called as early as this year amid uncertainty over the stability of the ruling alliance, which has only a two-seat majority in parliament.

Muhyiddin is facing a leadership challenge from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who said last week he had secured the support from a majority of lawmakers to form a government.

Malaysia has reported 11,771 coronavirus cases so far, including 136 deaths. The economy has contracted for the first time since the 2009 global financial crisis.

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