KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia will initiate a national lockdown Wednesday, restricting the movement of citizens until the end of March, to combat a potential "second wave" of coronavirus cases in the country, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Monday.
Malaysians will be barred from leaving the country during this time, and all foreign tourist and visitor entries will be banned, Muhyiddin said in a live, televised announcement. He did not discuss whether the lockdown could be extended beyond the end of the month.
"Malaysians who are returning to the country during this period will be subject to health screenings and self-quarantine of 14 days," the prime minister said.
The restrictions on movement include closing public and private offices, universities and schools. Only essential public offices and services such as banks, airports and police as well as postal, water and electricity providers will be allowed to operate, Muhyiddin said. Businesses are required to close, except for supermarkets and convenience stores.
"I'm aware that the restriction will be inconvenient for Malaysians, but we are left with very few options to control the outbreak before we lose any lives of Malaysians," he said. "We have seen some countries implementing drastic measures to control the outbreak such as China, which has seen an encouraging decline in the number of new infected individuals."
Malaysia recorded 125 new coronavirus cases Monday, raising the country's total to 553 -- the highest in Southeast Asia.
The surge, an apparent second wave of cases, came after individuals who did not know they were infected attended a Muslim religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur last week that drew 16,000 people from Malaysia and neighboring countries. Efforts to trace the attendees and their close contacts are underway.
Muslims, who constitute over 70% of Malaysia's population, will be prohibited from mosques during the lockdown. Practitioners of other religions also have been issued a notice to suspend all kinds of public gatherings.
The prime minister called on Malaysians to remain patient and calm. He urged citizens to avoid panic buying, saying supplies of essential items will be monitored and maintained.
Muhyiddin, who stormed to power after a coup attempt three weeks ago, said earlier Monday that his government will pour 2 billion ringgit ($467 million) into small-scale rural development projects -- undertaken by local contractors -- to stimulate the economy.
He also introduced a 2% electricity rebate for all residential and commercial consumers from April to September, while reserving 600 ringgit for any Malaysian affected by job retrenchment or forced unpaid holidays over the next six months. The payment is expected to benefit 33,000 employees.