Life in Lockdown: Malaysia

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Instead of a universally accepted global consensus on responding to the pandemic, or indeed, even on its terminology — “coronavirus”; “covid-19”; a particular automated-email-response favourite being, of course, “this unprecedented situation” — there have been a vast number of international approaches as to how we should all be behaving in this (here’s another one) “new normal”.

For many of us, global politics has never been more interesting, or more personally relevant. Our day-to-day concerns are no longer limited to just our immediate spheres, but to those of people all over the world. Paradoxically enough, in times as fraught as these, characterised by such xenophobic anxiety and national scapegoating, we’ve also been made aware of just how interconnected, and how equally vulnerable, we all are.

I’ve now spent almost three months back home in Kuala Lumpur. As an international student, going home when panic threatened to pop even the soapy surface of the Durham bubble seemed like the most plausible thing to do. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave my friends, the better part of my belongings, and my undergraduate career behind. Yet, despite the sadness, sudden solitude, and inevitable bickering that ensues when a family of five finds themselves stuck together at home, for the first time in seven years, I feel like I made the right decision.

My family were scandalised to hear that workers at British supermarkets were not wearing any facial protection.

Malaysia has been handling the lockdown situation in a vastly different way to the United Kingdom. When I returned home on the 22nd of March, I was under governmental instructions to quarantine myself at home for two weeks, a measure that England implemented only this month. When I emerged from my cocoon in April, it was already common knowledge that everyone had to wear masks while outside of their house.

My family were scandalised to hear from my university friends that even essential workers at British supermarkets were not wearing any facial protection in May, something many of them were citing casually as ‘just a cultural thing’. On the 15th of June, I read a Guardian article entitled ‘First day of compulsory face masks on public transport proves patchy’.

I was less shocked by the fact that people in Britain were not ‘fully complying’ with these rules than by the astounding realisation that the UK was only now making it a rule for civilians to wear masks on public transport.

It seems strange that a relatively un-influential country has been handling the pandemic more rigorously and efficiently than its ex-coloniser, Great Britain.

Now, Malaysia doesn’t necessarily have the best international or political rep; its very existence doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar outside of Southeast Asia. I can’t count how many times I’ve told people in the UK where I’m from, feeling compelled to add ‘it’s like, right above Singapore’ to glean any sort of geographical recognition.

That’s why it seems even stranger to me that a relatively un-influential developing country has been handling the pandemic so much more rigorously and efficiently than its far more high-profile ex-coloniser, Great Britain.

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to be handling such a bizarre, devastating, and — dare I say it? — unprecedented situation. I definitely don’t want to make this my contribution to the ever-growing hostility that seems to be spreading through the world as perniciously as the virus itself.

That being said, I still wish to express my thoughts that the British government has been very lax in their attempts to quell the virus’ spread. It took a near-death experience for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that shaking hands with coronavirus patients on hospital visits was perhaps not the wisest thing to do — and to start implementing more concrete strategies that involved more than simply advising people to sing “Happy Birthday” twice while washing their hands.

Everyone has been lambasting Dominic Cummings for driving up to Durham while exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, yet this month, no one seems to be questioning the hordes of students returning to universities from all parts of England — and indeed, the world — to live out the last few weeks of their tenancies with their friends.

It’s the same issue that resulted in Cummings’ scandal: despite public outcry, no precautionary measures have been put in place to monitor or prevent infected people from travelling across Britain.

If Snapchat stories and Instagram posts are anything to go by, returning university students don’t seem to have been told that third term has been cancelled, that business is not at all as usual, and large, mask-free social gatherings between people from all over the world could be putting themselves — and the families they will be returning to in July — at risk.

People who violated restrictions were faced with large fines or temporary incarceration.

After the rather authoritarian-sounding Movement Control Order in Malaysia was relaxed, following a decrease in new cases, interstate travel has tentatively been reintroduced. International borders remain shut for the time being. Restaurants and shopping malls have opened their doors again, but the number of people entering each establishment is controlled, and all the clientele have their temperatures scanned and contact details
recorded at each shop they visit to increase the virus’ traceability.

Leaving the house without a mask is like forgetting the keys to lock the door behind you. For Malaysians who did their housebound time for the months of March and April, these minor inconveniences are a far better alternative to staying at home all day. If it means we can enjoy some semblance of the way things were in a way that feels socially responsible, the masks, the
queuing, and the temperature checks feel worth it.

Of course, there’s been a fair share of grumbling at the extremities of some measures. In April, Malaysia was ranked fourth in the strictest national responses to the virus in Southeast Asia. People who violated MCO orders in the early weeks of restrictions were faced with large fines or temporary incarceration.

I was walking my dogs around my neighbourhood one day in April when I got stopped by two policemen, who told me I shouldn’t be out anywhere that wasn’t my own street.

Things aren’t perfect here, but they seem to be working for now. I’m definitely not saying we’re one of the best examples of tackling the virus — for that, perhaps we could look to New Zealand, Vietnam, Iceland. Or, more importantly, to ourselves, and our own efforts to contend with and thereby recover from the devastation of this pandemic.

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