Maldives begins phased easing of lockdown, most measures to remain for two weeks

Maldives will begin easing lockdown measures Thursday, with people allowed to go out for more hours and general businesses permitted to open, health officials in the island nation announced Wednesday.

Outlining the roadmap to ease Maldives out of lockdown, health minister Abdulla Ameen told reporters that the lockdown has had a major effect on slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The reproduction number, or simply the R value, has been cut to 1.4 from 3.8, he said.

The lockdown and stay-at-home orders in the capital region were initially ordered on April 15 for two weeks. It has been extended thrice, the latest being on May 14 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.

What can you do?

Minister Ameen said the restrictions in Male region will only be eased in phases, with the first phase starting Thursday and lasting at least two weeks.

“More measures will be eased after the initial period but only after assessing the impact,” he said.

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

From Thursday, a maximum of three people from each household will be allowed to go out for up to three hours twice a week but they will still have to get a police permit beforehand.

Businesses that can open from Thursday include:

  • Retail shops
  • Bakery
  • Supermarkets
  • Bookshops
  • Pharmacies
  • Hardware shops
  • Shops specialising in childcare items

Speciality shops such as those selling cosmetics and textiles can also take orders online and provide delivery service.

Banks will be allowed to provide essential services for three days a week in the first two weeks. In the second phase, banks can increase their service days to five a week.

Restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to provide takeaway and delivery service in the first two weeks. Dine-in will not be allowed until a later phase.

Government offices will also remain closed, but essential staff can go to office under special permits. Private offices can open for essential needs under a special permission from the economic ministry.

Colleges and universities can also resume online classes.

Parks, beaches and recreation centres, as well as schools and mosques in capital Male and its suburbs will remain shut for the first two weeks. Inter-island transport will also remain banned.

‘Second lockdown possible’

Health officials warned that the easing of restrictive measures does not mean we can go back to normal.

“There is risk of a potential rise in infections once the lockdown measures are eased,” Ameen said.

Dr Ali Latheef from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said the lockdown measures might have to be reimposed if a surge is detected. Further easing will also depend on how well people comply with the measures, he added.

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 later spread rapidly 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 1,457.

Five deaths have been reported and 232 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 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 were also shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital were 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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