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THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 100,000 Rohingya refugees caught in Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown

Malaysian soldiers arrest anyone who breaks government COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns.

Malaysia’s approach to pandemic control is unavoidable and unforgiving.

Citizens of the southeast Asian country contend with checkpoints, sanitation stations and broad city streets on military lockdown.

Homeless Malaysians have access to shelters with enough room for social distancing.


This is the way they live now. Health workers spray streets with disinfectant. Martial law forces residents indoors. Breaking the all-day quarantine is grounds for immediate arrest.

But for Rohingya refugees, ethnic minorities from Myanmar, indoors can mean a dilapidated steel shipping container.

Some sleep under bridges, defiant by default. Others idle in camps, where COVID-19 has just begun to arise.

This is how they live now, more than 100,000 of them, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The Rohingya people now in Malaysia fled what the UN’s human rights chief called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar.

They made it across the border with Bangladesh, and by boat to Malaysia. But virus or no virus, they have no right to health care here.

New waves are now turned away when they arrive by sea. Those who beat the odds and make it to Kuala Lumpur face hatred and threats of violence from Malaysians who believe they brought the deadly plague ashore.

Food and other supplies are hard to come by, and often passed through barbed wire to loved ones inside pitiless perimeters, stuck in housing projects that are inhospitable in the most ordinary of times.

Malaysia’s disease control plan raised more eyebrows than vocal protests, despite a constitution that guarantees “freedom of movement.” The document was written just 63 years ago—late enough to contemplate an exception for public health.

Empowered by that loophole, the iron-fisted approach seems to be working.

In a nation of 31.5 million people, the official death toll of 115 would barely register as a blip on the United States’s radar.

Malaysia can feel oppressive. The U.S. can feel deadly. The world can feel like it’s due for a change.

Confused and weary is the way we live now.

Malaysia soldiers stand guard near barbed wire in a locked-down area of Selayang, Malaysia on April 26, 2020. Those breaking quarantine without an approved reason are subject to immediate arrest. (Samsul Said/Zenger)
A migrant worker stands inside a shipping container, the home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where he is quarantined, on April 30, 2020. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


Homeless Malaysians trying to obey quarantine orders have temporary sleeping arrangements in shelters like this one, pictured on April 1, 2020. Mattresses are arranged in a way that encourages social distancing. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


Ethnic Rohingya refugees wait to receive food from a local NGO on April 6, 2020 in Selayang, outside Kuala Lumpur. The Rohingya people are victims of what the United Nations calls “ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar, and more than 100,000 have escaped to Malaysia. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


Women pass supplies under barbed wire near the Selangor Mansion housing project  in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. More than 850 people live in the eight-story building, which is under strict quarantine. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


A Muslim migrant worker prays after breakfast in the shipping container where he lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


Migrants speak with their friends under the bridge at construction side during the month of Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


A Malaysian Army guard stands near barbed wire at the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman shopping district. Saturday nights typically see the entire neighbohrood closed to vehicle traffic for an open-air market, but now even foot traffic is banned. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


Malaysian health workers escort a suspected COVID-19 patient to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia has had relatively few confirmed infections, losing just 115 lives in a nation of 31.5 million. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


A woman washes her hands before entering the wet market in the Malaysian city of Shah Alam as a worker and a soldier watch. (Samsul Said/Zenger)


A health worker wearing a protective suit and mask sprays disinfectant in the Kampung Bahru section of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Samsul Said/Zenger)

(Edited by Allison Elyse Gualtieri)

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