Malaysia is under increasing strain from an unrelenting surge in the coronavirus, with parliament to convene on Monday after a months-long hiatus and lockdown during which cases and deaths have only worsened, pushing overworked healthcare workers to strike.
The country reported a record 17,045 cases and 92 deaths on Sunday, increasing pressure on the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, which in January declared an “emergency” saying COVID-19 had brought the country to “breaking point”.
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Some 62 percent of Sunday’s cases were in the Klang Valley, which includes the capital Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding state of Selangor, Malaysia’s industrial powerhouse and public hospitals, some of which now treat only coronavirus patients, are feeling the strain.
In recent weeks, social media has been awash with harrowing photos and videos of a hospital system pushed to the brink by the sheer weight of numbers.
One video showed bodies kept in what appeared to be a hospital storeroom while the neighbouring ward was so full, patients were sitting in wheelchairs or on benches dragged in from corridors outside.
Others have shown people queueing for hours at COVID-19 assessment centres following positive tests and crowded and unsanitary conditions at government-run quarantine facilities. Originally for asymptomatic patients or those with mild signs of disease, the centres are now caring for those with far worse cases of the coronavirus.
Amid the growing discontent, Muhyiddin, whose near 18-month-old government has been under political pressure ever since it came to power, opened a ”special” session of parliament with its COVID-19 emergency due to expire on August 1.
Muhyiddin and his ministers, including those responsible for the economy and for vaccination, were set to brief parliament on the COVID-19 response and the government’s four-phase “national recovery plan”, which was unveiled in June. MPs will finally have the opportunity to quiz the government on its policies, after the emergency not only suspended parliamentary business but also allowed rule by ordinance.
In the event, MPs were disappointed that after giving his speech, Muhyiddin did not return to answer their questions, instead leaving it to the finance minister – who is a member of the upper house and not an elected politician.
Wong Chen, an opposition MP, said the first day was a “complete fiasco” and that it was “completely wrong” that Muhyddin had not remained in the house.
“This prime minister has no respect whatsoever for Parliament, as no excuse was given for his glaring absence,” he said in a statement.
‘We mean business’
As parliament convened, hundreds of junior doctors walked off the job in a long-simmering dispute over pay and conditions.
Working on contracts, which mean they have no opportunity for the specialisation necessary to advance their careers, the medics have played a key role in the country’s COVID-19 response.
Ahead of the action, Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, the director general at the ministry of health, urged them not to join the strike and consider their oath to “do no harm or injustice” to their patients.
“Remember many lives are on the line and the demonstration could affect their lives and even you career,” he wrote on Facebook.
Dr Mustapha Kamal Aziz, a spokesman for the hartal, told Al Jazeera that junior doctors had been working shifts of as long as 36 hours and also filling in for colleagues who contracted the virus and had to isolate.
“We are burned out and exhausted,” he said, adding that the continuing uncertainty was likely to fuel a brain drain with medics looking elsewhere for work.
The hartal or strike was organised anonymously after the contract doctors’ grievances were not resolved.
Local media reported doctors, dressed in black, walking out at public hospitals across the country including the Kuala Lumpur Hospital (HKL) and Sungai Buloh Hospital with police in some places ordering them to disperse.
Police in Kuala Lumpur later said they would start investigating some of those who went on strike, the hartal organisers said on Twitter.
— HartalDoktorKontrak (@HKontrak) July 26, 2021
Police will probe #HartalDoktorKontrak by contract doctors at Hospital KL.
— malaysiakini.com (@malaysiakini) July 26, 2021
The contract system was introduced in 2016 by a previous government and was supposed to be a stop-gap measure to ensure medics, who are required to work their first five years in public service, could get housemanship positions more quickly.
The government last week offered a two year extension to the junior doctors contracts while it worked out pensions issues related to hiring them permanently. They would also be allowed to further their studies.
Dr Kamal said the offer was not enough and noted that it had only been announced in a press statement.
“This walkout is symbolic,” Dr Kamal said, stressing there would be no risk to patients. “To show we mean business.”
On Sunday, Malaysia’s total coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic rose above one million. It has fully vaccinated 16.9 percent of the population, according to the latest official data, stepping up capacity in the hard-hit Klang Valley.