In Malaysia, the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s extreme economic downturn coincided with a national political crisis associated with the collapse of the short-lived Mahathir-Anwar led Pakatan Harapan in late February 2020, followed by the Muhyiddin Yassin-government
Despite this political turmoil, the pandemic was initially curbed due to Malaysia’s highly-subsidized state health system, its lockdown policy, and its largely compliant population. However, its economic outlook remained bleak. Moreover, the premature relaxation of precautionary measures during the Sabah state election campaign in mid-September led to a new surge of infections and a second national lockdown. After a period of recovery, a third lock-down was imposed due to several community outbreaks following the fasting month and the celebration of Idulfitri in May 2021. This time, the spreading of COVID-19 persisted.
The prolonged lockdown pushed even more people deeper into poverty and protests erupted over the onerous and seemingly ineffective restrictions. In late June 2021, a white flag campaign emerged that called for people to raise a white flag in front of their houses if they were in need of aid. This was followed by a black-cladded movement which contested the authorities’ failure to save people’s lives and livelihoods. Government relief packages were far from adequate, and despite being called the “People’s Caring Aid”, much of this assistance was actually financed by the recipients themselves via prolonged loan terms from the State and the premature withdrawal of retirement funds.
Non-state actors became involved in providing support and distributing aid for the many excluded groups, especially informal sector and low-wage workers, with human rights activists furnishing indispensable support to improve the abusive conditions forced upon refugees and migrants who were restricted to their living quarters irrespective of their infection status.
This photo essay is part of the photo exhibition “Who Cares? COVID-19 Divides in Southeast Asia”, organized by SEA-Junction and the Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR) of Mahidol University, in partnership with the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation, the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT), Silkworm, Khon Thai 4.0 and Bangkok Tribune. (The exhibition is on display from 17 October to 12 November 2023| Curved Wall, 3rd Floor, BACC). For more details, check out at http://seajunction.org/event/photo-exhibition-who-cares-covid-19-divides-in-southeast-asia and https://bkktribune.com/photo-exhibition-who-cares-covid-19-divides-in-southeast-asia/
Rosalia Sciortino is an associate professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research (IPSR), Mahidol University and director SEA Junction in Bangkok, Thailand. She is emeritus regional director for East and South-East Asia with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Singapore and for the Rockefeller Foundation in Bangkok.