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Coronavirus: Not the time to lower our guard

Photograph: The roads travelled for work - Women Migrant Workers in Singapore and Malaysia by UN Women Gallery/Flickr

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There is a major Archilles heel in our Covid-19 control programme that has yet not been tackled – migrant workers and factory workers, Jeyakumar Devaraj writes.

The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) was really happy to hear from the director general of health on 17 April 2020 that the number of new coronavirus cases identified in the previous 24-hour period had dropped to 69.

This was the second time that the number of new cases had dropped below 100 since 14 March 2020. Many Malaysians were happy to hear this. We have all been waiting for the numbers to come down so that the movement control order can be relaxed and we can go back to normalcy.

The Ministry of Health must be commended for the good job they have done in providing the professional input that enabled the National Security Council (NSC) to make the correct, if difficult, decisions to launch the movement control order.

The Malaysian government’s decision to provide income support for 8 million families was a bold but necessary step to ensure that people would not be deprived of food during the movement movement control order period.

So too was the government’s decisions to declare a moratorium on loans and provide various forms of support for small and medium-sized enterprises as these SMEs provide employment to almost 60% of our workforce. The nation will need the SMEs to play their role in restarting the economy when the movement control order can be safely relaxed.

The people of Malaysia – who, on the whole, complied with the restrictions of the movement control order – also played a key role in bending the new-cases curve downwards.

But we should be careful about patting ourselves on the back too early. There is a major Archilles heel in our Covid-19 control programme that has yet not been tackled comprehensively – the six million or so migrant workers in our country, two-thirds of who are undocumented, and the majority of whom live in crowded unsanitary conditions.

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PSM has been advocating since 19 March 2020 that the government reaches out to this community and win their trust, as our main weapons for containing Covid-19 – case identification, contact tracing, isolation of cases and contacts – will be resisted by the migrant community because they will be afraid that, after the two weeks of quarantine in a government facility, they might be charged for immigration violations, flogged, jailed and deported.

If we do not win their trust and cooperation, our entire control programme will blow up in our faces when – not if! – the epidemic spreads to the migrant population. We can see how that is unfolding now in Singapore.

In the memorandum addressed to the prime minister on 19 March 2020, the Peoples Health Forum (of which PSM is a founding member) recommended two policies, namely:

  • free treatment for all migrant workers coming to government clinics and hospitals for the next one year
  • a moratorium on immigration offences for a similar period, ie. they will not be arrested and charged for not having proper documents

There was no response to this memorandum. PSM then sent wrote to the PM, the health minister and other members of the NSC on 2 April 2020 reiterating these two recommendations. Again, there has been no indication that this issue is being attended to. Of course, PSM does not have any standing to expect that the PM or the NSC responds formally to our suggestions.

But we do seriously hope that the government is taking steps to ensure the huge uptick of new cases in Singapore arising from spread of the infection to the migrant population does not occur here as well. If it does, it will just make it that much harder to relax the movement control order and restart the economy.

The other issue that PSM would like to flag is that some of the factories that have been allowed to resume production are not adhering to precautions. Workers have been complaining to us that their management is not checking the temperature of workers daily, not providing safety masks or not ensuring physical distancing in the work place. All these measures cost money, and businesses, left to themselves, will try to save costs.

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The NSC needs to ensure that the relevant agencies – the Labour Departments, local councils or health departments – open hotlines for workers to call in and complain (anonymously) as well as conduct on-the-spot checks and issue “stop work” orders if there is failure to comply with safety precautions. We cannot afford to take our eyes off the ball.

Finally, to the people of Malaysia, PSM would like to say – hang in there, and observe the movement control order restrictions. We are winning the battle, but the war is going to last for at least a year.

Even when the movement control order is lifted, it won’t be back to normal, for the risk of an uptick in infections will always be there, and these flares will have to be dampened down quickly by increasing physical distancing in the districts affected. We will have to operate in a different mode until a safe and effective vaccine is found.

But so far, we have done quite well as a nation and have avoided the horrendous death tolls that some other countries are experiencing. If we continue to ensure that no one is deprived of basic necessities because of the disruptions caused by this epidemic, we will emerge from this challenge stronger and more united as a nation.

Stay strong and look out for one another!

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