Crushed hopes: Maldives lockdown exit plans draw ire for ‘failing to address emotional toll’

Residents of Maldives capital Male raised concerns Thursday over whether they could cope with a series of unprecedented restrictive measures any longer after the government unveiled a roadmap to slowly ease one of the world’s most densely populated cities out of lockdown.

The restrictions in Male region which stem from the coronavirus pandemic are being eased in phases, with the first phase starting Thursday and lasting at least two weeks. Despite some relief, most restrictions remain in place during the first phase.

Shortly after the government unveiled its reopening plans, people took to social media to criticise the plans as “too little, too late”.

The barrage of criticism centres around how the reopening plans fail to take into account the heavy emotional and psychological toll of the extended lockdown measures.

“In most countries, one of the first step of easing the lockdown was allowing people to go out for exercise. This is something we can do, with social distancing measures,” Ahmed Marzooq, Secretary General of the Maldives Olympic Committee, said on Twitter.

His comments are being echoed by dozens of social media users who say they were hoping for more.

Parents and guardians are also adding their voice to the debate. They say not allowing children below the age of 15 to go out until the second phase of reopening will lead to both short and long term mental health issues.

“This is unacceptable. We should be allowed to take our kids out for at least a few hours every week,” Fathimath Yusra, mother of an eight-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, said.

What can you do in the first phase?

The lockdown and stay-at-home orders in the capital region were initially ordered on April 15 for two weeks. It has since been extended four times.

The lockdown bans all public activity and travel in Male 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.

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

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, recreation centres and gyms, as well as schools and mosques in capital Male and its suburbs will remain shut for the first two weeks. No outdoor exercise is allowed.

Inter-island transport will also remain banned.

‘New normal’

Despite the public criticism, health officials say the lockdown has had a major effect on slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The reproduction number has been cut to 1.4 from 3.8,” health minister Abdulla Ameen said, during a press conference Wednesday evening.

Officials say the lockdown measures can only be relaxed in phases.

“There are certain things we have to consider before we take every decision. We can’t take any risks,” Dr Nazla Rafeeq, a medical officer with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), told reporters Wednesday.

Health officials say the gradual loosening of restrictions can only be implemented in the context of a “new normal” phase to avoid a second wave of infections.

“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,” Dr Ali Latheef from HPA said.

Health minister Abdulla Ameen (R) and Dr Ali Latheef speak to reporters during a press conference held at the National Emergency Operations Centre in Maldives capital Male Wednesday evening. PHOTO/ HEALTH MINISTRY

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 242 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.

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