Lives versus livelihoods? Which should be prioritised?

By Amanda Yeo


IT is devastating to see that all efforts from every segment of the society are in vain. Malaysia used to be a role model for other countries to learn how to combat the COVID-19 pandemic effectively but now Malaysia becomes the third most infectious country in the Southeast Asia region.

As of January 12, Indonesia and Philippines recorded 846,765 COVID-19 cases and 491,258 cases respectively while Malaysia recorded 141,533 cases in total.

Currently, the number of COVID-19 deaths in Malaysia has increased to 559 cases with a mortality rate of 0.39% .

Although the death rate is lower than most of the countries around the world, it is still worrying as Malaysia recorded more than 100 deaths per month from October to December 2020.

Coupled with the four-digit COVID-19 daily infections since end November 2020, the Malaysian government is left with no options and eventually decided to implement different phrases of movement control order (MCO) in respective states.

For states that are deemed as high risk by the Ministry of Health (MOH), MCO is imposed effective from Jan 13 till Jan 26 in all Federal Territories (Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan), Penang, Selangor, Melaka, Johor and Sabah.

For states with lower COVID-19 infections, conditional MCO (CMCO) is enforced in Pahang, Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan whereas Perlis and Sarawak are the only two states that are under recovery MCO (RMCO).

However, as many business and factory owners as well as low-income earners are still struggling to survive from the pandemic, more business sectors are allowed to operate during this MCO 2.0 – slightly different than the MCO back in March last year.

During this MCO 2.0, factories and manufacturing, construction, services, trade and distribution as well as plantation and commodities are the five essential economic sectors that remain operational but with only 30% of management staff allowed at the workplace.

Due to the re-imposition of a ban on inter-state and inter-district travels, hotel owners, bus and tour operators have once again expressed concerns over the catastrophic consequences of the stricter lockdown measures in the country.

According to the Malaysian Association of Hotels CEO Yap Lip Seng, the hotel industry already recorded at least 6% of retrenchment, with people losing their jobs since last year, while the rest are either on a pay cut or unpaid leave, in comparison to March 2020.

The Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners (Maho) executive director, Shahruddin Mohamad Saaid added more hotels could be forced to shutter operations, as the earlier MCO and CMCO had already caused losses of up to RM8 bil last year.

In addition, the Malaysian Bus Operators Association president Datuk Mohd Asfar Ali indicated many of its members have suffered drastic drops of income since last year.

The stringent lockdown measures will cause them to feel the pinch from the pandemic even more – 99% of bookings have been cancelled right after the announcement of MCO 2.0 on Jan 11.

Although the tourism industry in Malaysia has picked up a little in December due to the relaxation of travel measures, the current travel ban will definitely affect domestic tourism.

This can be seen in the touristy island of Langkawi – hotel bookings dropped as much as 60% in the last two days and all the hotel bookings during the Chinese New Year holiday next month have been cancelled.

As most of the domestic tourists in Langkawi are from the six states that were put under the MCO, the hotel, car rental, restaurant, taxis and ferry operators in the Langkawi island will face an estimated loss of RM120 mil if MCO 2.0 persists for weeks and even months.

It might eventually force more sea and land tour agencies to close shop either temporarily or permanently.

Aside from hotel owners, bus and tour operators, the retail sector is expected to remain vulnerable. Due to the fear of virus infection, many Malaysians chose to reduce their frequency of going to shopping and commercial centres since the end of September.

With limited shoppers and shorter operational hours, many retailers were unable to operate at full capacity or at the pre-COVID-19 level.

As no dine-ins are allowed in the MCO areas, Malaysia Coffeeshop Proprietors’ General Association president Datuk Ho Su Mong indicated coffee shop businesses would suffer by at least 20%.

As the coffee shop rental in the Klang Valley area ranges from RM10,000 to RM 30,000 per month, some of the coffee shop owners might not able to sustain their businesses as they could not afford to pay associated operational expenses such as workers’ salary and utilities related expenses.

If the Malaysian government does not provide an automatic extension of loan moratorium, wage subsidy, rental exemption and extension of Employee Retention Program (ERP) to the affected economic sectors during this MCO 2.0, more people will be unemployed due to more business closure – providing bleak future for fresh graduates who are planning to find a job during this health crisis.

Maybe MCO 2.0 would provide a breathing space for the frontliners to cope with the increasing number of patients but given the number of COVID-19 infections is much higher than the MCO 1.0 in March last year, Malaysia might need at least six weeks to reduce the current spread of COVID-19 infection.

While trying to save more lives, the Malaysian government should introduce additional economic stimulus package aside from Budget 2021 for the vulnerable groups to weather the storm.

With the #kitajagakita spirit, the economic livelihoods of the ordinary citizens would be taken care of. Once Malaysia manages to flatten the pandemic curve again, Malaysians could enjoy a normal life and help Malaysia’s economy to recover gradually. – Jan 14, 2021


Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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