Maldives tightens restrictions as coronavirus ‘surge’ looms

Maldives is tightening restrictions on its citizens after health officials warned of a potential surge in the number of coronavirus cases in the next two weeks.

Since authorities placed capital Male and its suburbs on lockdown on April 15, police had been issuing permits for grocery shopping. The permit allows one person from each household to go out for one hour every three days.

But the police said Thursday that existing grocery permits will be revoked from Sunday. New rules will further restrict shopping to only once a week, they added.

A bridge connecting capital Male to the airport island of Hulhule and the satellite town of Hulhumale is also being closed from 1-9am daily.

The new measures follow warnings by health officials that the virus spread in Maldives will likely peak at the end of May, with some 1,600 new cases on the 31st.

The revised projections, revealed last week, were a significant reduction from initial estimates of 6,000 new infections on peak day.

Current projections put the total number of virus cases in the Maldives at 77,305. Out of the 13,658 that are likely to be hospitalised, 5,805 are expected to require intensive care treatment.

Meanwhile, Health Protection Agency (HPA) has extended a lockdown and stay-at-home orders in Male for another fortnight.

The lockdown bans all public activity and travel in one of the world’s most densely populated cities and its suburbs of Hulhumale and Villimale. Any movement in and out Male and its suburbs, as well as the neighbouring industrial islands of Thilafushi and Gulhifalhu are also banned.

Meanwhile, separate lockdown measures specifically for outside the greater Male region are in effect indefinitely.

The measures include a ban on inter-island transport across the archipelago of 1,192 coral islands.

Public gatherings, including ceremonies and parties of all kinds, sporting events, and picnics in the islands, are also covered under the ban.

Authorities managed to mitigate the spread of the virus and the Covid-19 respiratory disease it causes amongst the Maldives’ citizens and residents early on by closing the Indian Ocean tourist paradise’s borders, earning praise from the World Health Organisation.

But the disease is now spreading rapidly, especially within the large migrant worker community in capital Male. Authorities have ramped up relocating workers from the cramped up dormitories in one of the world’s most densely populated cities to temporary accommodation units.

An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work in the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population close to 145,000.

Foreign workers in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men, are subjected to practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.

As most migrant workers live in extremely poor conditions, a widespread outbreak amongst them could lead to large virus clusters, overwhelming the country’s already under staffed and strained healthcare system and making it harder for authorities to contain the spread of the virus.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

A six-case cluster of locals, detected in capital Male on April 15, confirmed community transmission of the coronavirus. Several more clusters have since been identified, bringing the total number of confirmed case in the Maldives to 982.

Four deaths have been reported and 46 have made full recoveries. Five remain in intensive care.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including stay-at-home orders in capital Male and its suburbs, a ban on inter-island transport and public gatherings across the country, and a nationwide closing of government offices, schools, colleges and universities.

Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

All international airlines have suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 13 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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