‘Illegal’ label shouldn’t apply amid virus crisis

Josh Hong

IN the wake of a spike in Covid-19 cases, Director-General of Health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah called on Malaysians not to stigmatise migrant workers, but instead, appreciate their contributions to our economic growth.

While his goodwill gesture to migrant communities is more than welcome, does the left hand really know what the right hand is doing?

At the outset of the crisis, Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob urged undocumented foreigners to come forward for virus screening. He promised that the government would not take action against them over their lack of papers.

However, Putrajaya made a volte-face following the April lockdown of Selangor and Malayan Mansions in Kuala Lumpur, and arrested hundreds of illegals. In the name of fighting the pandemic, Immigration Department officials cast their net wide, reaching as far as the Selayang wholesale market and Petaling Jaya Old Town. Among those detained are migrants under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The sudden about-turn only served to create fear among foreign workers, especially undocumented ones, prompting them to go into hiding. No one would come forward for testing knowing that the chances of their arrest, detention and even deportation are high. And, not to mention the new Covid-19 clusters emerging in our chronically overcrowded immigration detention centres – the perfect breeding ground for the virus.

Some Malaysians may point to Singapore and argue that there is no better alternative to the drastic measures being undertaken to stem the rising number of infections. But what they fail to see is that the majority of migrant workers in the island nation are housed in 43 dormitories, making it easier to locate and screen them. The situation in Malaysia is different, with foreign workers here mostly scattered throughout urban centres as they bear the cost of their own accommodation.

This is particularly true for those without legal status. Living in congested, shared quarters, and coupled with poor workplace hygiene, they are invariably vulnerable to the risk of contracting the disease. Lest we forget, Malaysia is home to between four and six million migrant workers. When stepping forward to get tested becomes a risky affair, containing Covid-19’s spread is but an exercise in futility.

In this regard, Malaysian laws contradict each other. Section 10(2) of the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 makes it mandatory for any medical practitioner who treats or becomes aware of the existence of any infectious diseases on any premises to notify the case with the least practicable delay to the nearest medical officer. In other words, hospitals and clinics should not turn away a person with suspected communicable diseases on account of them being an “illegal”, for to do so potentially heightens the risk of contagion. Meanwhile, Circular 10/2001 – issued by the Dr Mahathir Mohamad government in 2001 and reiterated by the Najib Razak administration in 2014 – requires all healthcare providers to report “illegal immigrants” seeking healthcare services to police and the Immigration Department.

This contradiction puts medical practitioners in a dilemma when it comes to treating undocumented foreigners. To create more trust among migrant communities and give healthcare personnel peace of mind, the government should repeal Circular 10/2001.

Exorbitant fees are another major obstacle in the way of migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons seeking to access public healthcare. Although Malaysia is widely credited with having achieved universal healthcare coverage for its citizens, low-income foreigners continue to be denied access to affordable medical services. This is in stark contrast to neighbouring Thailand, which has a lower per capita income, and whose Public Health Ministry in 2018 registered an estimated 1.5 million undocumented migrants in an attempt to expand healthcare coverage regardless of citizenship.

Furthermore, the migrant-friendly services provided by Thai authorities have seen volunteer community health workers deployed, mobile clinics set up and multilingual infographics distributed at healthcare facilities. After all, many migrants live among or in close proximity to locals, and improving health conditions for the former will ultimately ensure the host society’s health security. Acknowledging migrant workers as an integral part of the local community may, in the long run, help reduce the stigma against them. At the risk of sounding premature, of the three Southeast Asian economies – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – that are most reliant on migrant labour, it is Thailand that appears to be winning the war against Covid-19.

Thoughtful it may have been, but Dr Noor Hisham’s message will not carry much weight so long as government agencies, most notably the Immigration Department, are bent on rounding up undocumented migrants across the country, thereby creating an intractable situation and undermining the tremendous efforts made by the Health Ministry in the battle against the virus.

Truth be told, many migrant workers become illegal through no fault of their own. The government should seriously consider offering them a genuine amnesty, so as to encourage them to come forward for testing. If there is anything that we can learn from this crisis, it is the home truth that we have not lived up to the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. – June 8, 2020.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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