By Jon Emont and Chester Tay
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- A sharp rise in coronavirus cases tied to factories and workplaces has led to a Covid-19 resurgence in Malaysia, a sign of how industrial settings -- where laborers often work in crowded and poorly ventilated conditions -- can become vectors of contagion as global demand recovers.
Malaysia's government this week counted 83 active clusters of infections connected to workplaces around the country, most prominently an industrial area that houses the world's largest glove manufacturer. More than 2,500 workers have tested positive at Top Glove Corporation Bhd, which supplies to more than 190 nations and has seen demand for its products, such as disposable medical gloves, shoot up this year.
The company stopped work in at least 20 of its 41 factories in Malaysia and reduced operations at others, according to its statements.
Outbreaks have also centered on a Kuala Lumpur construction site, which is linked to more than 1,500 infections, and a logistics company tied to dozens of cases in the nation's south. Another cluster linked to factory work grew to more than 1,000 infections and has spread to three states in the country, according to the health ministry.
The recent spurt has challenged Malaysia's monthslong success in controlling the spread. After a tight and efficient lockdown at the pandemic's start, daily caseloads hovered in the low teens and 20s for most of the summer. By May, the country had eased restrictions on movement and joined the club of east Asian nations that have subdued the virus.
Then domestic infections began to grow. Malaysia, which had fewer than 100 daily cases on average in September, has averaged more than 1,000 a day since mid-November.
The situation highlights the risk of virus spread in manufacturing facilities, which -- like gymnasiums, restaurants, and places of worship -- are the sort of densely packed indoor spaces that have been linked to coronavirus clusters around the world.
Outbreaks have been reported among factory workers in Mexico who produce motors used in industrial equipment and among meat-plant employees in Germany and the U.S.
Last month, more than 550 employees of a garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka tested positive, ending months of low transmission on the small island nation that continues to contend with an elevated Covid-19 caseload.
Labor experts say factories can become prime locations for the virus's spread. "When you pack workers into a factory building, don't vent the air properly, and make it hard for sick workers to stay home, you are creating ideal conditions for viral transmission," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor-rights monitoring group based in Washington.
Mr. Nova said migrant workers are at particular risk because they are often housed in crowded dormitories, living and working in close quarters "virtually nonstop," he said.
That appears to be playing out in Malaysia, where migrant workers -- who typically are from countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal -- have been disproportionately affected by the recent outbreak. This week, the health ministry reported that of the 4,036 people who tested positive in the cluster that includes Top Glove facilities, 3,846 were foreigners.
Top Glove didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about whether its workplace or dormitory conditions contributed to the spread of the virus.
Representatives from a government labor department visited Top Glove factory worker accommodations Thursday, according to the company. Top Glove said in a statement Friday it is "in the process of improving the living quarters of our workers" to meet the requirements of Malaysian law.
The outbreak among migrant workers in Malaysia mirrors the situation earlier this year in neighboring Singapore, which had gained firm control over the virus before transmission at migrant worker dormitories caused a surge in cases in April. Malaysia's government has ordered nearly 900,000 foreign workers be tested for Covid-19 nationwide as a precaution.
Economic analysts say Malaysia's government faces a dilemma in deciding whether to reintroduce large-scale movement restrictions, which could damage the economic recovery, or instead stick to a more targeted approach of closing down factories or areas that have seen spikes in cases, with the risk that they will miss some clusters. At a news conference last week, Noor Hisham, director general of the health ministry, said Malaysia's nationwide lockdown in April had been effective but extremely expensive, and that the country needed to "balance the economy and health."
So far the government has opted for more-limited intervention, focusing on at-risk workers, such as a group of airline employees it says may have been exposed to a virus cluster. Earlier this week it announced that around 360 such workers would be isolated at a hotel as a precaution.
Yeah Kim Leng, professor of economics at Sunway University in Malaysia, said the country's economic recovery would likely continue unless authorities opted for a return to strict lockdown. "We are still not out of the woods," he said.
Write to Jon Emont at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires