New Covid cluster among migrants in Malaysia
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New Covid cluster among migrants in Malaysia

Rights activists criticise conditions in cramped detention centres

Muslim men observe social distancing during Friday prayers at the state mosque in Penang, Malaysia, ahead of Eid al-Fitr which fell on Saturday night and marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP Photo)
Muslim men observe social distancing during Friday prayers at the state mosque in Penang, Malaysia, ahead of Eid al-Fitr which fell on Saturday night and marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (AFP Photo)

A new cluster of coronavirus infections has broken out in Malaysia at a detention centre for undocumented migrants, authorities said on Saturday.

Malaysia has this month arrested more than 2,000 foreigners for not having permits that allow them to be in the country following raids in areas under lockdown. The centres where they are detained are often crowded, with dozens of migrants packed into a single cell.

The United Nations and rights groups have called on Malaysia to stop the crackdown and criticised authorities for going after a vulnerable community during the pandemic.

Malaysia has so far reported 7,185 virus infections and 115 deaths.

The health ministry said on Saturday that 21 cases were identified at the Semenyih detention centre near Kuala Lumpur, which houses around 1,600 detainees.

It is the second detention centre at which a cluster of virus infections has broken out. Around 60 cases were reported among the 1,400 detainees at the Bukit Jalil centre earlier this week.

The ministry’s director-general, Noor Hisham Abdullah, said the source of infections at the centres had not been identified.

The migrants were screened before their arrests, but the virus may not have been detected during the incubation period, he said.

Detainees can spend months in the centres before they are deported.

In recent weeks, there has been public anger toward refugees and other foreigners, who have been accused of spreading disease, burdening the state and taking jobs as the economy plummets. Rohingya refugees in particular have been targets of harassment and threats.

In other developments on Saturday:

Singapore cases top 31,000

Singapore’s health ministry said on Saturday it had confirmed 642 more coronavirus cases, taking its tally of infections to 31,068.

The vast majority of the newly infected people are migrant workers living in dormitories, the ministry said in a statement. Six are permanent residents. 

Authorities also said that the city-state’s contact-tracing phone app, “Trace Together”, will remain voluntary for “as long as possible”.

“It is a hybrid system based on public support, keeping public trust, and maintaining privacy,” Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview with Sky News Australia. “I think it is very important to have those features, because otherwise contact tracing will not work.”

About 1.5 million residents have downloaded the app, or between 20% and 25% of the city-state’s population, he said. Officials are considering other contact-tracing devices, such as a dongle that could boost participation by mitigating the loss of phone battery life since the phone app runs on Bluetooth technology, said Balakrishnan.

The government wants to “avoid a false dichotomy, between a completely centralised government system where Big Brother knows it all, or a decentralised anonymous system where it is a free-for-all, and no one really has an overall view of the data”, he said.

That’s why the app was offered as open-source for mass testing, and why the data is “locked up and encrypted in the person’s own handphone, until and unless he or she turns positive”.

Zero for China

China on Saturday reported no new cases of Covid-19 for the first time since the country’s leadership stepped up measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak on Jan 20.

But 28 new asymptomatic patients, who tested positive without showing any symptoms, were confirmed in the 24 hours to the end of Friday, according to Chinese health authorities.

Out of the total, 25 were confirmed in Hubei province where the epidemic originated. Wuhan, the provincial capital where the virus was first detected late last year, has just finished testing all 11 million of its residents following the discovery of an infection cluster earlier this month.

Big Tokyo stores reopen

Some major department stores in the Tokyo metropolitan area resumed more operations on Saturday following a six-week suspension.

After the Seibu department store in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district opened its doors at 10am, more than 50 people who had been waiting outside entered after having their temperature checked and disinfecting their hands.

The store had continued to operate its food section even after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on April 7.

The flagship store of Sogo and Seibu Co has now reopened floors for clothing and other daily necessities, but not for jewellery and art products.

“We have heard from many customers that they want to buy women’s clothes and household goods,” said manager Toshiki Kubota. “We can now finally welcome them after taking sufficient anti-infection measures.”

Takashimaya department stores resumed sales on May 14 of daily necessities, with shortened operating hours.

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