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Has the coronavirus found Malaysia’s Archilles heel?


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Three simple measures could reduce the transmission rate among migrant workers, Jeyakumar Devaraj writes.

The Covid-19 figures yesterday were frightening: 1,884 cases nationally with 1,203 in Selangor alone!

The Covid-19 vaccine results are much better than people had dared to hope, but it will take six month or more to vaccinate enough people in Malaysia to achieve herd immunity. For now, we have to rely on wearing masks, identifying cases, isolating them and their close contacts, and imposing movement control measures.

But what if we have a group of people who cannot afford to come forward for testing or for quarantine? These are the estimated three million to four million migrant workers without proper documents – the undocumented migrants.

If they come to our health care clinics, they face the risk of being detained and packed into overcrowded prisons or immigration camps. Not only would they lose their source of income and face the possibility of being deported, they would also be at greater risk of acquiring Covid-19 infections in the crowded detention centres.

It is certainly not in their self-interest to come forward and cooperate with our health authorities. So why should they? After all, being working-age adults, they have a low risk of dying from Covid-19.

But if we are unable to test and isolate those among the migrants who are infected, Covid-19 will keep spreading in their community and from there to Malaysians as we share the same space. Malaysia’s R number – the average number an infected person could pass the virus on to – will not dip below 1.0 in the near future, and we will be forced to prolong the debilitating partial lockdowns until at least the middle of next year.

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There is, however, an easier path – but it needs Malaysian authorities to change their coercive and punitive stance towards undocumented migrants.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) and several other groups have suggested three measures:

  • implement a moratorium on immigration offences for the next one year. No undocumented migrant will be arrested and detained because he or she does not have a passport or his or her permit has expired
  • offer subsidised treatment at government health facilities for all migrant workers
  • provide alternative accommodation for the close contacts of diagnosed Covid-19 cases so that the chain of transmission can be broken. Meals should be provided to those who are required to quarantine

These three measures, if implemented strictly, would make it possible for us to win the confidence and cooperation of migrant workers, and with this we have a chance of wrestling the R number to below 1.0 and opening up our economy a bit more.

But can the National Security Council and the Ministry of Home Affairs overcome their authoritarian tendencies and implement the above three measures? If not, we will be caught in a prolonged partial lockdown that will cause significant economic distress to many.

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