Published On: Wed, Mar 18th, 2020

Nobody seemed familiar with the term social distancing

Same dog - different hat - Hilbert Haar - 20180912 MJGHThe corona-virus in Kuala Lumpur:

Nobody seemed familiar with the term social distancing

By Hilbert Haar

I briefly wondered whether it was wise to travel abroad towards the end of January. We wanted to escape the extreme heat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for the months of March and April when the mercury can shoot straight through the 40-mark. Would that damn corona-virus get in our way?

By then, I knew that the situation in China was bad, but Cambodia had not reported a single case of infection yet. Nobody was dying and Siem Reap’s watering holes along its Pub Street were still doing brisk business. The old and cramped market was open, kids went to school and the borders were open.

I had no idea how bad things were going to get. And so, on the first of March, we left our condo in Cambodia and headed for Bangkok, planning to travel on to Malaysia afterwards. And we did.

At first, I experienced the corona-jokes on Facebook as funny. By now, I’m getting sick of them.

While the world fell to pieces – in China, in Italy, in Spain and further down the line in many other countries (including the Netherlands, and by now also St. Maarten) – I traveled freely through Asia; from Bangkok to the island of Langkawi in Malaysia, then to Kuala Lumpur and from there via Malacca to a place called Johor, located close to Singapore.

By the time I arrived in Kuala Lumpur it dawned on me that this corona-crisis was really getting out of hand. But in the Malaysian capital it was business as usual. I saw a picture on CNN of an empty shopping mall in KL that made me wonder; because on that same day I was in another shopping mall in the same city. And there were plenty of shoppers around.

Even better, when I entered that same evening the trendy Goa restaurant in the Malaysian capital the place was packed and I swear that no one in the house seemed familiar with the term social distancing. It was fun, but also unreal.

Being a predominantly Muslim country, many women in Malaysia wear head scarfs. In combination with the inevitable facemasks – that do not protect against the corona-virus – they might as well have opted for full-blown niqab-gear. Social distancing comes natural here.

There are now travel restrictions in place but weirdly enough they do not apply to travel within Malaysia. Foreigners are not allowed to enter the country and citizens are not allowed to leave. Like in many other countries, businesses have closed their doors with the exception of supermarkets. But we are still free to go wherever we want.

I am not into telling others how to handle this situation, but I get pissed off by people who pollute social media with remarks like, one to three million people die every year of malaria. The actual number is more like 435,000 (per year) and that’s still a lot of casualties. But what the hell has this got to do with the corona-virus?

I just received an email from the Dutch consulate in Siem Reap advising expats to return home. In this case, that means the Netherlands. In my case, home is where my feet are and my permanent base for the near future remains Cambodia.

Is it wise to stay in a country with a weak healthcare system? Hell if I know. The most popular answer is most likely: hell no. I intend to return to Cambodia by the beginning of May though I do wonder what the situation will be by that time. If the government closes the border, I’m gonna be stuck in Malaysia. Truth be told I’m not looking forward to that scenario but in the meantime, I will take my chances.