KUALA LUMPUR: For months, Malaysia appeared to have contained the coronavirus outbreak. Then top politicians flew into one of the few remaining hotspots to campaign for a local election, and spread the virus far and wide.

Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin imposed new travel curbs yesterday as Malaysia logged a record 691 daily cases, with a third of them coming from Sabah, which held elections last month.

Muhyiddin is now in quarantine along with seven members of his Cabinet after politicians from the federal capital campaigned in the state without adhering to social-distancing guidelines.

The swift resurgence shows how election campaigns can trigger virus flare-ups if handled improperly.

Some countries like Singapore have held national votes with no major outbreaks, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s party is set for a landslide win in an election this month that was initially delayed over a minor outbreak that authorities quickly got under control.

Others like Myanmar, which holds a vote on Nov 8, are under pressure to delay elections after a recent flare-up. And the outbreak at the White House that saw US President Donald Trump test positive shows the political consequences for failing to contain the virus: National polls released this week show Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a double-digit lead and a widening margin in key battleground states.

The outbreak in Malaysia could similarly hold consequences for Muhyiddin, who has only held a razor-thin majority in Parliament since taking power in March after a previous coalition collapsed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said last month he has the numbers to oust Muhyiddin, raising speculation that the PM might soon call for a general election.

‘Using the cane’

While politicians from all parties campaigned in Sabah, a crucial swing state that was won by Muhyiddin’s bloc, the government has taken the brunt of the criticism for the subsequent virus outbreak.

The hashtag #Muhyiddinout started trending on Twitter after the prime minister appeared to make light of the need to follow social-distancing restrictions shortly after his government announced that a one-year-old baby was among the deaths in the latest outbreak.

“Sorry if this dad starts using the cane!” Muhyiddin declared, using a nickname for himself frequently used on social media in Malaysia. In the address, he acknowledged that the Sabah election fuelled the latest virus resurgence and said that “very much saddens us”.

The Election Commission had mandated that campaign events must adhere to physical distancing, conduct body temperature checks, record attendance, limit the size of rallies and require the use of face masks and hand sanitisers.

Yet the parties still conducted traditional campaign events and shook the hands of potential voters, said Thomas Fann, chairman of election watchdog Bersih, who was in Sabah to observe the polls.

Photographs from the campaign trail showed one politician from Muhyiddin’s ruling coalition, who later tested positive, failing to wear a mask while squatting inches away from a stall owner at a wet market. Authorities later closed the market down indefinitely.

“I’d like to think I wore a mask at almost every moment,” Shahril Hamdan, another politician affiliated with the government who tested positive, wrote in a Twitter thread. “But if I’m honest, I took off the mask during speeches. I wasn’t strong enough to walk away from events with people. That was clearly not social distancing.”

While the government said there was no need to isolate for 14 days if those returning from Sabah tested negative, some politicians did so anyway.

Lim Yi Wei, with the opposition DAP, tested positive five days after returning from Sabah even though an initial test at the airport showed she didn’t have the virus.

“Since day one, I’ve been quarantined at home,” she wrote on Facebook.

Dr M Subramaniam, president of the Malaysian Medical Association, said politicians should’ve allowed their allies in Sabah to campaign on their own, rather than flying to the state and bringing back the virus.

“Everyone should have been tested and quarantined,” he said. “Suspicion of infection is important. And that’s why we are suffering now.”