Pandemic in Penang: A Play-by-Play from Two Digital Nomads in Malaysia

Before you judge our decision to stay in Malaysia and not ‘repatriate’ ourselves, scroll to the bottom to read our motivations for riding out the pandemic in Penang/George Town. If coronavirus statistics trigger your anxiety, this journal might not be for you. Also, I wrote this, so not everything here reflects Jonas’ views.

My sources for Malaysia come from the trilingual news website Malaysia Kini, which has an excellent COVID-19 tracker which adds new functionality almost twice a week, and our elevator. My world stats come from the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, which unfortunately keeps butchering country names. The Dutch stats come from the ESRI COVID-19 Hub. The watercolor maps come from maps.stamen.com.

Days since the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO): 76

Diary + Developments

Sunday, 10th of May: CMCO Extended, All Foreigners Confused

The last days have seen a change in Penang’s pandemical landscape. Late-night traffic has increased as the curfew has been lifted and more people are mobile. Our bakery has reopened and people are more relaxed.

Today, the PM made a televised address about the extension of the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) from May 12th till June 9th. An extension of four weeks. We don’t know what that means for *foreigners in Malaysia and are confident that things will clear up in the coming days. Then we can extend our stay in this apartment for the… I’ve lost track how many times.

The Facebook chat that turned into a Facebook group called Tourists Stranded in Malaysia has grown quite a bit. Suddenly we’re sharing lots of information with other people. The main confusion comes from the immigration website, where we could apply for an extension of our “social visit” to Malaysia. The website can’t always handle the traffic volume, so we only heard from the group what it’s like to get through the process and get a (physical) appointment at immigration. We’re waiting for them to share their experiences.

*Later this day, someone from the group took the higher ground and called the immigration hotline. They were told that the extension also applies to tourists, and that we can still stay until two weeks after the end of the (C)MCO, which would be the 23rd of June.

Tuesday, 5th of May: Penang is Free from (Confirmed) COVID-19, Falafel Returns

Probably already since yesterday, but YAY!

5 may 2020 pandemic in Penang free from confirmed COVID-19 cases

In other news, the pandemic in Penang is going in a good enough direction for the local falafel businesses to open again on Foodpanda and Grab. Before lockdown, we had a choice of three restaurants that delivered falafel to our front door. When the MCO came into effect, they all disappeared. Jonas has been checking multiple times a week if falafel was back on the menu. Today, our wishes have been answered. We directly ordered their falafel platter with some dolma on the side. It was amazing.

A few hours earlier, Jonas had joined a Facebook chat for tourists in Malaysia. As it soon had an 88-people membership, they finally moved it into a Facebook group. There he got the tip to check on FlightRadar24 to see which airlines are still actually flying, and which just sell tickets only to cancel on you and then give you a lousy voucher. Yes, this seems to be the new way for airlines to rip you off. I must say the conniving fuckers are resourceful as shit. Scruples? Zero.

While napping post food, we heard and then saw an airplane that just took off from Penang International Airport. Huh? It’s more likely that it’s a bird or Superman than a plane these days. Jonas suggests to find out what it is on the flight radar website. What the..?

Pandemic in Penang airport flightradar24 lockdown mco

That’s a passenger plane, I’m fairly confident. That flies directly from Penang to Taipei in Taiwan. Is the (binational?) community in Penang large enough to maintain flights? I’m pretty sure Taiwan closed its borders for pleasure trips. What am I missing?

Sunday, 3rd of May: Penang Doesn't Want to Reopen, More Kimchi Delivered to Our Doorstep

Even though Penang State only has 2 active cases now, the state doesn’t want to reopen after the announcement two days earlier. Instead, the state government decided to implement the CMCO on May 8th. They named their approach the Penang Gradual Recovery Strategy (PGRS). The main reason is that the state wants to make sure that all businesses can implement the new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and that not all would be running until at least May 13th. That’s probably for the best. Our elevator news is also surprisingly quiet on the recent developments.

The day after ordering, we got a phone call that our new vegan kimchi and satay sauce jars were coming our way. This exciting arrival will help us unlock so many scrumptious flavors.

Also good news: the Penang river (Sungai Pinang) cleaned itself up after weeks of not absorbing our pollution.

Friday, 1st of May: Conditional MCO (CMCO) Announced

Coming Monday (May 4th), the government announced that the hardcore MCO will be lifted and Malaysia will enter the “conditional MCO”. Some businesses may open again under certain conditions and there’s a list of activities that are still banned. One business we order food from directly took to their Facebook page to announce that the first customer coming Monday would get 100% off their bill.

Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) announced, the crowd goes wild

😬 Yikes, that’s exactly the kind of message that would draw a crowd.

To me, it’s not really clear yet whether, for example, the pool in our building may reopen again. It says that swimming is still banned, but our pool is not public and before the MCO it was usually empty. Perhaps one condition that must be met is that we’d need to reserve a slot with the lady who manages the pool floor. But I’m just spitballing ideas here now. I’m sure that there will be more news in the coming days that can clear up the perpetual confusion of new measures.

I’m looking forward to perhaps taking a leisurely stroll around our block, which sounds like an activity that would be allowed.

Thursday, 30th of April: We Should Be in Timor-Leste

Today is the day we should have flown from Darwin in Australia to Dili in Timor-Leste. Even though I’ve known for six weeks that this wasn’t going to happen, I’m still feeling a bit melancholic. Almost all of us have to put our dreams on hold for now.

We’ve received the voucher for the flight from Singapore to Darwin with Jetstar. Jonas is positive that we’ll still get a bit of money back from the flight from Darwin to Timor-Leste with Airnorth. In the end, we got all our money back from the Airbnbs we’d booked ahead in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Darwin. In the end, we didn’t lose that much money from this pandemic.

We tried ordering veggies for the first time from the internet. Facebook had been spamming my profile with lots and lots of ads for this kind of service. We spent some time on each website until we found one that also delivered eggs. We ordered, thinking it would only arrive next week. Then we ordered dinner.

A few hours later, Jonas got a call from someone apologizing for being out of cilantro. It took a while for us to understand what was happening, but we eventually figured out that our veggies were coming our way. Same day delivery! I don’t know why we didn’t come up with this earlier.

30th april 2020 veggie delivery penang

Speaking of produce, the durian season has begun and this polarizing fruit may be sold during the MCO if vendors get a special durian permit. Since my palate isn’t mature enough to appreciate durian, we shall not be buying any.

Wednesday, 29th of April: We're Allowed to Go Shopping Together Again

The news informs us that our standard two-person shopping trips will once again be legal. After the MCO came into effect, we learned only one person per household may get groceries, but now it has doubled to two. That’s really great news for us the next time we need new handsoap dispensers and coffee.

At home, Jonas and I keep working on our projects. After more than a month of being shut in, Jonas begins to have a harder time. I realized I need some more pressure to be productive, so I signed up for a few collaborations that have actual deadlines. I hope this helps my productivity and focus. We’ll see.

In the evening, we check the COVID-19 tracker from Malaysia Kini and see that George Town is… officially free from COVID-19 patients! The last patient in our district (Timur Laut) was discharged from the hospital. I hope they are recovering well.

29 April Timur Laut covid-19 free pandemic in Penang Malaysia Kini

Tuesday, 28th of April: No New Cases for 14 Days in Our District

The district of Timur Laut (which includes all of George Town) has not seen any new COVID-19 cases for two weeks! I really hope these numbers reflect the situation somewhat accurately; I feel that there’s somehow an incentive not to report cases since decisions to reopen businesses might depend on it.

28 april Timur laut 14 days no new cases Malaysia kini

Meanwhile, I try to keep my news reading to a brief and emotionally distant minimum. On the world stats, I’m only looking at a few countries. Cabo Verde and Timor-Leste are two of the ones I can still invest energy in. And then there’s Singapore, where we would have traveled to in a coronavirus-free world. They’re not doing so well after a promising containment effort back in January.

Jonas and I distract ourselves with TV series, like our third k-drama and playing videogames together. This kills a few hours of not having enough energy to do anything worthwhile. Staring at the near-daily incoming thunderstorm in the afternoon is also a good pastime.

Friday, 24th of April: Korean Flavors

Today, our favorite Penang restaurant delivered us a jar of vegan kimchi (김치)—seasoned and fermented veggies good as a side dish. During our last supermarket visit, we’d found Korean soju (소주)—an alcoholic beverage we know from the Korean Dramas (further: K-dramas). All we had to do now is order the “meatless” Korean burgers we’d familiarized ourselves with.

We’d just finished watching the latest season of Better Call Saul and found a new K-drama called Memories of the Alhambra. We fashioned shot glasses out of plastic sauce containers and Jonas poured the soju. I translated the word for cheers in Korean (건배).

Geonbae!

24 April Pandemic in Penang 1

It was a glorious meal. It almost felt as if we were traveling.

The elevator also informed us about the update that went through the previous day. For tomorrow, we also arranged the delivery of a mop to go along with our mop bucket with the guy we rent from.

3rd MCO extension 24 April elevator news

Thursday, 23rd of April: Ramadan Begins, Third MCO Extension

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan started on the 23rd of April and will end on the 23rd of May. In the evening, Malaysia’s PM announced that the MCO would be extended from April 28th till May 12th—another two weeks. I think the announcement came a few days earlier than the previous extension because of the start of Ramadan.

A little over 60% of Malaysia’s population adheres to Islam, so Ramadan is big here. Under usual circumstances, people break their fast (iftar) in the evening by visiting one of the many iftar bazaars, which also function as social gatherings. That’s off the table now with the MCO. Practitioners of other religions, like Buddhists and Christians, also have had to cancel their events earlier during the MCO. In Penang State specifically, the religious ratio is more like 44% Muslims, 36% Buddhists, 9% Hindus, 5% Christians, and 6% others, hence its diversity.

The MCO includes a dawn-to-dusk curfew when you’re not supposed to be outside between 20:00 and 8:00. Food deliveries also stop before this time. This means essential workers who rely on food delivery after a hard day’s work that have to order their iftar (or e-ftar on Foodpanda, probably a pun?) well before sundown. I’m not so sure how much this is a problem for people, but I hope the healthcare and delivery workers will be OK with the long hours in the daytime and the pressuring circumstances this year.

Sadly, our favorite bakery downstairs from our building seems to suffer a lot from the rules. They’re almost always closed. I don’t remember if I said this before, but their croissants are heavenly. I hope their business won’t succumb.

So yes, the MCO has been extended for the third time. Jonas shared the news with me, so it was a bit to process. Somehow, this has felt more unexpected because our state has been performing well. The lack of an end date makes it so much harder for our brains to grasp the situation.

On an unrelated note, the air-conditioner of our living room keeps crashing. It’s the room we spend the most time in, so it’s rapidly becoming a major nuisance. Only Jonas is tall enough to reach the reset button from a chair, so I can’t be helpful. We’ve resorted to turning on the ACs in the bedrooms and then spreading the cool to the living room with the ceiling fans. Without it, we’re sweating at 10:00 from doing nothing.

Wednesday, 22nd of April: Penang Has a 7-Day Streak

Our state – Penang – along with one other have not seen any new confirmed COVID-19 cases for a week. I’m hoping the health people can maintain this good work. The curve of Malaysia also shows signs of flattening. I’m carefully optimistic that perhaps in Penang some of the harsher sanctions will be lifted. I’m not sure if the Malaysian government would ever consider lifting rules in one part of the country and not another. I don’t know how they roll.

In our apartment, we spend our uninspired leisure time lying on the bed, and shooting my hair ties up the wings of the ceiling fan. It’s surprisingly entertaining and sometimes my favorite part of the day.

Coming to think of it, the only joy that’s really missing from our quarantine is a pet. I’m still not sure if we’re petless or petfree.

Tuesday, 21st of April: The Second Supermarket Visit

When you try to visit the supermarket at a time when there’s no crowd… but you are the crowd.

21st april 2020 pandemic in penang line at supermarket george town

Friday, 17th of April: Rallying 'round the Red (or White) Flag

I’ve been Skyping a lot with my family members in the Netherlands and writing with friends in other countries. It surprises me that most people think it’s going well, even if there are signs of exponential growth or – from my viewpoint – inadequate action. A kind of rally ’round the flag effect, but not USA-centric. Everyone’s in an uncritical headspace and refusing to confront decisions. This worries me so, so much.

Even though I sometimes try to steer conversations away from the virus, it always ends up the main topic—and it’s fueled by news headlines. And I know my people in the Netherlands don’t want to hear me say that the Dutch stats look like crap to me. That 110 people dying of COVID-19 in a single day does not sound hopeful. That making fun of countries where face masks are mandatory (and have long been normalized) makes it sound as if there’s pride or virtue in being incorrigible and unadaptable. Even implying that it’s noble that so many older corona patients are signing DNRs to keep ventilators free for younger patients is somehow noble, and not a sign of collectively being taken aback.

In a country where doctors under non-pandemic circumstances are trained to:

  • Belittle your medical complaints
  • Insert their own opinion on the treatment you’re asking for
  • Butcher simple procedures and make you pay for the fix
  • Crap over the bodily autonomy of adults by refusing procedures
  • Throw up blockades to prevent you from seeing a specialist doctor
  • Mock patients for having undergone medical procedures in private clinics in what they deem “third world countries”

the result is that the patients just don’t expect much anymore. They (especially the elderly patients) don’t dare to ask for a ventilator or are even being talked out of it. But at the same time, we truly believe that doctors know what’s best for us. It’s a socialized healthcare system that’s equivalent to a non-sexual conversation with a cis straight man that somehow leads to a dickpic: devoid of consent, possibly threatening, disappointing through and through, and you’ll be called a bitch if you don’t appreciate it. Praising this trainwreck is just showing how housebroken we are because the healthcare system in the USA is more shit. This isn’t a competition.

I’m aware that we’re all just coping because it’s harder to accept our powerlessness and that the opposite of good governance might be true; that the people that have made decisions for you might also just be winging it—or worse. But I can’t stand people criticizing what Malaysia’s doing when back in the Netherlands the PM is literally slinging shit at the wall but the wall is actually the people by calling the (lack of) measures an “intelligent lockdown”. Back in high school, we had to learn in history class about propaganda. It was always in the context of other countries. No wonder that so many people have deluded themselves buying into the iNTelLIgENt LOcKDowN bullshit.

Like a good netizen, I vented my frustration into the creation of memes.

dutch people coronavirus measures meme 

Thursday, 16th of April: We Should Have Flown to Darwin, Australia

As the title says, today would be the day we’d fly from Singapore to Darwin, Australia. Not happening.

Australia was one of the first countries to completely ban entry by non-citizens. They don’t seem like they’ll open up anytime soon.

Friday, 10th of April: Another Two Weeks of MCO

As expected, the Movement Control Order has been extended until April 28th. Just two weeks didn’t really cut it. The good news is that more people have been released than confirmed cases again. That’s the third day this happened and the second consecutive day. It deserves a bit of happy cheering. The next day, the elevator informs us of the extension.

11th april mco extension elevator

We decided that now is the time to upgrade our life in our condo. I want a yoga mat for the daily bit of exercise we do and a new lens cap with a leash. I make sure that the things I order from Lazada are already in West Malaysia. Who knows how long it would take if it had to be shipped in from abroad? This way, it only takes three days for my packages to arrive.

Thursday, 9th of April: We Should Have Hitchhiked to Singapore

Today is the day we should have hitchhiked from somewhere in southern peninsular Malaysia to Singapore. Hmm.

However, we’re both very, VERY happy we didn’t get stuck in Singapore of all places. We’d previously booked an Airbnb in Singapore – which got refunded – for the week we’d stay there and it was expensive as heck for what it was. Riding out the pandemic in Penang still seems like the best possible place to be in.

Friday, 3rd of April: Penang Complies for 98.9%, 1.1 Percent Naughty or in Need

This compliance level to the MCO means that there aren’t a whole lot of people breaking the rules of the MCO. In the weeks prior, there have been quite some MCO-related arrests all over Malaysia. Not all the MCO violators were outside for fun, some were hungry. That’s heartbreaking.

Tuesday, 31st of March: The Memes Have Disappeared

I noticed over the last few weeks that the internet memes about the coronavirus have diminished. Perhaps it’s because the USA hit exponential growth and the number of people dying is increasing rapidly.

For weeks already people have been incredibly fighty on Facebook, Twitter, and probably elsewhere. People will get upset at just about anything, even when it turns out they mostly agree on things. That’s why I often feel defensive in my decision to not repatriate. It’s also why I’ve included a content warning in this article at the top.

Someone might get mad that we order so much food online, or that we both entered the supermarket at some point, or that we have even been outside the main door of our complex.

Others might get mad because we wear face masks outside, wash or disinfect our hands four times before/while going outside, or that we’re actually trying to comply 100% with Malaysia’s policies, for which there are a good reasons.

It’s not that you can’t win them all, it’s that you can win exactly none of them. This situation only creates losers. You see, saying #StayTheFuckHome actually lacks a whole lot of nuance by excluding a lot of people and doesn’t make you a good comrade. That’s why it’s probably best to just log off.

Monday, 30th of March: The Virus is in the House

OK, the virus is in our condominium complex, not our actual apartment inside the complex. We’re doing fine.

But when we went downstairs in our building to get croissants and a new bottle of water or a soda, we saw a new note to residents plastered in the elevator. It mentioned that there was a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Tower B. We’re in Tower A. It said that the places this person went to inside the building would be sanitized.

Once downstairs, we walked to our bakery, which was closed but had one person inside doing something at the till. Alright, no croissants today or tomorrow, probably. Then we walked to our convenience store. There were three employees inside who angrily gestured to us to back the fuck away. Alright, alright… no water or gaseosa. I guess the confirmed case frequents the same places as us.

I just don’t understand why the three employees have to stay inside the (possibly contaminated) shop? They’ll have to go home at the end of the day anyway… why not just tell them to close up shop and go (and stay) home?

A few days later, our building shows up on the Malaysia Kini map. When a building appears on this map, it means it has been sanitized already.

MCO sanitize Tropicana pandemic in Penang George Town Malaysia Kini

Wednesday, March 25th: To the Supermarket

On this day, we went to the supermarket for the first time. The rules for going to the supermarket weren’t really well-defined yet, which is why we both walked the 700 meters from our condo to the supermarket. The plan was that one of us would go in and the other would stay outside, but when we entered, the man running the show put us in the grid. It seemed that there were many people who went shopping together as a duo, but there were no people with kids unlike before the MCO.

In the grid, we had to keep a distance from one another and wait until it was the turn of our row to enter. That depended on how many people left the supermarket. When it was our turn, everyone in our queue got a big glob of hand disinfectant and then we were allowed to do the shopping.

Tuesday, March 24th: Lowering my Information Diet

My productivity has tanked. My night rest has gone to shit. And I’m constantly distracted and full of Weltschmerz and lethargy.

Normally, I already consume little of the news. That has changed a lot since January. It’s time to return to those days and implement some method to keep aware of big changes in the rules, but not read so much I induce an anxiety attack.

The plan is as follows: no more news or stats until the afternoon when my energy dips.

Monday, March 23rd: Malaysia My Second Home, By Accident

Jonas messages our host to ask for an extension on the apartment. We inform the guy that we want to keep renting his place until a few days after the MCO is over. If the MCO is extended, we shall extend our contract. Inadvertently, it seems like we’ll be participating in the cheap version of the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program. Welp, we live here now.

Travel planning has been the one thing that has kept me sane during my gap year from travel. Right now, it’s useless to attempt any travel planning since we don’t know what the world will look like ‘after’ the coronavirus. We don’t know what routes will survive this, what accommodations will reinitiate. Heck, it’s even very likely that my studies of the last leg of the Danube from Mohács to the Black Sea might be undermined to the point of no use. It’s time to find a different hobby.

Sunday, March 22nd: The Army Joins

In the intervening days, the situation has become a lot more surreal. I can’t concentrate on my work. COVID-19 is constantly on my mind. Memes are about as much as I can handle, sometimes.

Thus far, all the exciting things that happened in my life were instigated by me or were somewhat within my control. Dissatisfaction and boredom have been some of my greatest motivators to hitchhike and travel. Now, all of us that don’t have skills or jobs useful to this pandemic have to face

You can’t spell pandemic without panic.

Then my thoughts shift from boredom to something much darker: what about those stuck in isolation with their domestic abusers? How can they leave if the partner who perpetrates domestic violence is around them constantly? What about the victims that were 99% ready to leave, but then got locked down with the person they fear most. Where can they go?

When I compulsively check the Johns Hopkins dashboard, I see something that breaks my heart: Timor-Leste has its first confirmed case 🙁

22 march 2020 Timor-Leste first COVID-19 case East Timor

Today, the army is supposedly entering the streets to enforce the new rules better. I haven’t seen any military in the streets this day. Later that day, I also learn that there can’t be more than one person in a car, which probably makes taking a Grab impossible for us now.

Friday, March 20th: Staring At the Pool

We were curious about the exact rules within our building, so we took the elevator down to the pool level to see what was going on there. There were quite some (white) people lying on the swing beds or on the benches. The pool, however, was definitely closed. The gym and the yoga space too.

pool closed MCO malaysia pandemic in penang condo

Thursday, March 19th: Moving Condos

Today is the day we were supposed to hitchhike to Malaysia’s capital city Kuala Lumpur. Instead, we’re packing up our belongings in a sloppy manner to move to a bigger apartment within the same complex.

19th march 2020 pandemic in penang moving day 1

This apartment isn’t a studio: it has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a more spacious living room and kitchen. Jonas is very excited about the huge table that we’ll use as a desk. I don’t know why exactly, but there are six beds and no shelves. We didn’t get any upgrades appliance-wise; there’s still no microwave and no washing machine. We have a vacuum and a mop bucket without the mop. But we have a corner apartment with windows on both sides, so we can see two stunning sides of the city and port.

19th march 2020 pandemic in penang moving day 2

This will be our home for the foreseeable future, though there is not much to foresee.

Wednesday, March 18th: Movement Control Order

March 18th till March 31st, they had said. Here’s day one of restricted movement. So we stayed inside, packed some stuff, and ate our cold dry noodles.

Cold dry noodles are actually way tastier than I make it sound.

Tuesday, March 17th: Countercyclical Behavior + Cancellations

It was everyone’s last day of freedom in Malaysia. There was a lot of uncertainty hanging in the air. We tried to do activities that go against the mainstream, so we would not be stuck in crowded and/or panicked situations fighting over bog roll, as we’d seen in the preceding weeks.

I put on my longyi, flip flops, and face mask to go to the two Buddhist temples on Burma Lane. Jonas ordered a Grab. Getting into a Grab was already as contactless as it gets; we touch the door handle on the outside and inside of the car and that’s it. There’s no money exchange, no speaking. Nobody coughed or sneezed in the short timeframe it took to get to the temples.

Back in 1803 when Myanmar was still Burma, the Burmese community of Penang founded the Dhammikarama temple. Today, it’s an iconic temple with a different set of rules than the temples we know from Myanmar; you only take off your footwear when entering the buildings, not already when entering the temple grounds. We spent our time in Myanmar rapidly building up callouses to rise to the challenge. The temple here in Penang is Myanma pagodas for beginners.

It was a quiet pagoda. There were only a few monks around and two other groups of tourists. We made sure not to touch things unnecessarily and disinfected our hands regularly. Then we crossed the street to the Thai Buddhist temple Wat Chayamangkalaram across the street. This temple was a bit more crowded, but social distancing was still possible.

Like the temple across the street, the Thai people went by a different name at the time of its foundation: the Siamese. Today, that has all been renamed to Thai, unlike Thailand’s oft-misnamed neighbor.

17 March Pandemic in Penang Buddhist temples

The entrance of the Myanma Dhammikarama temple as seen through the gate of the Thai Wat Chayamangkalaram temple.

When we returned home, we ordered three meals from our favorite place on Foodpanda – Pǐnxīn Vegan – ahead of time. Since we didn’t have a microwave in our apartment, we specifically ordered dishes that would also taste good cold. A delivery driver handed us the bags and bags of food. It was a lot.

From my travel Facebook groups, I learned that Australia and Singapore closed their borders. The notifications from the groups went wild as more and more countries got added to the list of closed countries. It was unsettling.

We had one last swim in the pool. We rationalized that it might stay open because… chlorine kills germs.

Monday, March 16th: Tension in the Air

In the afternoon, Jonas got an email from Airbnb telling us we could cancel our bookings and get a full refund. Now there was no reason not to cancel Kuala Lumpur and book something else in Penang. We decided to book one of the more spacious apartments we’d researched the previous day. Two weeks, to start with. From the 19th of March till the 2nd of April.

From our Facebook groups, we learned that the Malaysian government would make an announcement in the evening regarding their plans to curb the pandemic. I think that in our hearts we already knew a shutdown or lockdown, or whatever they were going to call it, was going to happen.

That evening, we returned to our favorite falafel + shisha place called Reggae Club Penang. We’d already begun washing hands more rigorously, not touching our faces, and trying to keep touching objects to a minimum. We brought our disinfecting hand gel to the bar and took some extra effort to find the sink and handsoap to wash our hands before and after eating. To be honest, the place is a bit grubby, but their food is finger-licking good. After food, we ordered a shisha and another round of drinks. The shisha didn’t taste as good to me as it did the week before, probably because I already knew that the coronavirus attacks the lungs.

While taking a big drag, Jonas checked his phone. His eyes were glued to the screen for a bit.

“What is it gonna be?” I asked.

“Restricted movement. Starting this Wednesday and until the end of the month. That’s two weeks in total.”

I took a big sip from my gin tonic. We smoked in silence for a few minutes, pondering the consequences. Then it was time to plan.

“So we can still do something fun tomorrow. Let’s go to the Myanma and Thai temples. Do we still have enough groceries to make it till the Thursday after implementation? Will food delivery still work?”

I had many questions. Jonas could only answer those that were answered by the news website the people from Expats in Penang linked to. The most important question is of course what would happen when our tourist visas would expire on the 26th of May. Would the government make the (reasonable!) decision to allow us to stay for as long as this Movement Control Order (MCO) would be in effect? We knew we still had enough time in Malaysia to wait for answers.

That night, we jumped the gun and made a short trip to our building’s convenience store to buy some items that would help us bridge a few days in case of mass panic. Essential items like, you know… pot noodles.

Sunday, March 15th: Scenario Building

The voices of a global shutdown had become so strong that I couldn’t ignore them anymore. It was distracting. Instead of working on a blog post as I had intended, I discussed some scenarios with Jonas while on our daily swim in the pool.

In Malaysia, the number of cases had jumped from 238 to 428 overnight. Kuala Lumpur was the epicenter of the pandemic. Travel bans to Malaysia from a lot of European countries had already been imposed, but the Malaysian government had banned entry to anyone holding passports from a few worst-hit countries.

What could we do in this situation?

Luckily, we’d only crossed the border into Malaysia just 18 days ago. Our entry stamps were still quite fresh and not at all about to expire; we had 90 days in total and we could stay until the 26th of May. Once you’re inside a country, you’re in. That is unless they change the rules and kick out all foreigners. Traveling to another country would be a bad idea; I already hate flying under normal circumstances, I’m frankly not curious enough to learn what it’s like with a high chance of cancellation and surrounded by people going berserk.

I told Jonas not to book or plan anything far away anymore unless it was for the next day.

We both looked out of the window of the 30th floor. Penang… is not a bad place. On the contrary: it has it all. The decision to stay right here where we’d come to rest seemed intuitive.

Penang Malaysia Coronavirus COVID-19 stay home

Our rent of this particularly small studio in Penang would expire on the 19th of March. We’d already booked something in Kuala Lumpur, but my gut feeling told me we would not make it there, nor should we want to. So we searched on Agoda and Airbnb to find our next apartment in Penang. After some discussion, we thought it would be a good idea to move within the same building complex. Our building – Tropicana 228 – is a huge condo with lots of rentals. We made a selection of apartments and then stopped plotting for the day.

That evening, we went out to this vegetarian Indian restaurant that we’d come to love called Woodlands.

Background: The Slow Encroachment

First of all: we want to do the right thing.

Jonas and I have been in Asia since the 31st of October, 2019—well before this shit went down. Our travel dates have been as followed:

  • Shanghai, China: 31st of October till the 5th of November 2019. The virus probably didn’t exist yet in humans.
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand: 5th of November 2019 till 3rd of January 2020. The first cases appear in China, likely as early as November 17th (this is backdated). Nobody in my circle knew it existed back then.
  • Myanmar (Mandalay to Kawthaung, overland): 3rd till 31st of January 2020. Here we first learned about the coronavirus. One travel Facebook group starts a thread and shares the link to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard which I’ve started monitoring. A few countries like North Korea and Turkmenistan are the first to close their borders and cancel visas. The first confirmed case outside of China appeared in Thailand on the 13th of January, ten days after we’d left Thailand.
  • Southern Thailand (Ranong to Hat Yai, overland): 31st of January till the 27th of February 2020. On the 27th of February, we hitchhiked from Thailand to Malaysia. The virus is becoming a big topic in travel groups. I’m mostly keeping an eye on the cases in Malaysia and Singapore, which seemed ‘under control’. What we didn’t know at that time, is that the week-long religious event named ‘Tabligh’ that led to the largest infection cluster in Malaysia started on the day we entered Malaysia.
  • Peninsular Malaysia (Kota Bharu to George Town/Penang, overland): 27th of February till the start of this diary. At the time of entering Malaysia, we were unaware of the political crisis that was happening.
    On Friday the 6th of March, we made our last hitchhiking day when we hitchhiked to Penang. The virus was a big topic during each of our three rides, but people were generally unworried. On the 11th of March, the WHO retitled COVID-19 from an outbreak/epidemic to pandemic. Things started to look very grim.
    Since arriving in Penang, I’ve joined more local Facebook groups and got some information from a Malaysian Facebook friend who knows more. I follow the Malaysian updates on this news website.

Our canceled plans were to leave Malaysia overland to Singapore in April. We’d stay for one week in Singapore and then fly to Darwin in Australia for a two-week stay. From Australia, we’d take the flight to Dili in Timor-Leste, where we’d stay for a long time including over independence day. The plans beyond Timor-Leste were very vague, but we spoke of going to Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Brunei—not per se in that order.

Q&A

Why Aren’t You Repatriating Yourselves?

  • We don’t have a home or a permanent address. This apartment in Penang is more ‘home’ than any place in the Netherlands or Germany. Wherever we’d go, we’d probably have to get an Airbnb and quarantine for 14 days upon arrival there. Honestly, that would just be a giant waste of everyone’s time, money, and safety.
  • If I was in the Netherlands, I’d hope to visit my grandmothers on a biweekly basis. They’re in their eighties and I would never forgive myself if I infected them. Jonas’ grandmother in Germany is also at risk.
  • Malaysia has been a nice country so far with immensely friendly people in these trying times. Despite Europe being the epicenter of the epidemic in March, nobody has given us the stink eye or suspected us. Penang itself is a very diverse city where we’ve felt welcome.
  • We’re afraid that if we’d take our governments upon their repatriation offer, we’d be split up and sent back to Germany AND the Netherlands instead of just one country. Perhaps that’s irrational, but since we have no address and aren’t contractually glued to one another, you never know what our governments would do to us.
  • By traveling, we’re much more likely to catch and spread the virus, endangering good people all the way from Malaysia to Europe and anywhere in-between.

What Are Your Greatest Fears?

  • Catching the virus, being asymptomatic, and passing it on to a vulnerable person.
  • Catching the virus, having severe symptoms, suffering, requiring hospitalization, and adding to the pressure on Malaysia’s health systems.
  • I don’t want to give the Malaysian government any ideas, but it would be disastrous if they forced all foreigners who don’t have a residency out of the country.
  • I’m afraid if we can’t somehow extend our tourist visas here under these extraordinary circumstances. The normal rules are that we can stay in Malaysia for 90 days until late May, without the possibility of extension. We don’t want to overstay our legal welcome here. We’d also love to avoid going into an immigration office since that seems like a high-risk place to catch the virus.
  • We rely heavily on food delivery services such as Foodpanda, Folo, and Grab. Our apartment (like many apartments) doesn’t have a proper kitchen to do our own cooking. If food delivery services had to stop, we’d be quite fucked.
  • A very drastic escalation of measures, such as getting sealed into our homes completely.
  • An additional disaster, such as an earthquake hitting Penang or the region and taking out electricity and water.
  • The internet collapsing.

Thanks for Reading! Feel Free to Share.

Before Malaysia went on lockdown, we decided to ride out the coronavirus pandemic in George Town, Penang. These are our experiences as digital nomads who can't travel. #Penang #Malaysia #Malay #Malaysian #PulauPinang #GeorgeTown #coronavirus #covid19 #lockdown #quarantine #isolation #socialdistancing #digitalnomad #digitalnomads #remotework #locationindependence #locationindependent #stayhome #malaysiamysecondhome #globallockdown

  •  
    203
    Shares
  • 80
  •  
  • 123
  •  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
*