Malaysia closes borders, shuts most businesses in lockdown

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s leader announced on Monday a drastic two-week lockdown in the country to slow the spread of the new coronavirus following a sharp spike in the number of cases.

Prime Minister Muhyiddini Yassin said all religious institutions, schools, businesses and government offices will be shut from Wednesday until March 31. All mass gatherings will be banned and only essential services including supermarkets, banks, gas stations and pharmacies will be allowed to stay open.

He said Malaysians will not be allowed to travel overseas, and all foreign visitors will be banned. All Malaysians returning from overseas will have to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The country recorded 315 new cases of the virus in the past two days, causing its total to surge to 553, the highest number in Southeast Asia. Many of the new cases are linked to a recent 16,000-member religious gathering at a mosque in a Kuala Lumpur suburb that also sickened dozens from Brunei and Singapore.

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Fears of a lockdown have prompted panic buying at many shops and supermarkets across the nation.

Muhyiddin said in a televised message late Monday that the measures, under the Restriction of Movement Order, are needed to prevent the outbreak from worsening. He urged Malaysians to stay calm, saying there would be a sufficient supply of food and adequate health care, including masks for everyone.

“We cannot wait until the situation deteriorates. Drastic moves are needed immediately to restrict public movement and curb the spread of the virus,” he said.

Just hours earlier, Muhyiddin announced additional financial aid to help the poor cope, including cash handout for about 33,000 workers on unpaid leave, discounts on electricity bills for six months and early payments of cash aid to low-income families. The government earlier unveiled a 20 billion ringgit ($4.7 billion) stimulus program to bolster the economy.

While the virus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.

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