Improve living conditions of migrants, says health expert

Parts of Kuala Lumpur were placed in lockdown after Covid-19 cases were reported among migrant workers.

PETALING JAYA: Any further government raids on migrant communities may result in pushback against efforts to manage the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a public health specialist.

Dr Tharani Loganathan of Universiti Malaya said immigration and police raids had created distrust of the healthcare authorities and migrants might now avoid voluntarily seeking Covid-19 screening and treatment at government facilities.

“Long-standing barriers exist for non-citizens in accessing healthcare in Malaysia, the most important are financial barriers and the need to present legal documents at healthcare facilities,” Tharani said.

The management of migrants has been debated since the Covid-19 pandemic started in the country. Many have questioned the extra risks faced by the community due to their living conditions and barriers to basic healthcare. Many also feared that they may create clusters and spread the disease.

Dr Tharani Loganathan, a specialist in public health medicine.

The health ministry was initially praised for announcing in January that non-citizens will be exempted from paying fees for Covid-19 testing and treatment at government facilities, and that there would be no immigration enforcement during the period of the pandemic.

However, on May 1, the authorities conducted mass raids on undocumented migrants in various locations in Kuala Lumpur that were in lockdown. Police said undocumented migrants might be difficult to trace if they became infected.

Tharani said the raids destroyed the trust carefully built up by the government since the beginning of the pandemic.

She said the government should deal with the underlying issues, that of congested living conditions, as the authorities would be unable to detain all the estimated 2-3 million undocumented migrants in the country.

The government has also announced that all migrant workers must be tested for Covid-19, with costs shouldered by their employers, but Tharani said mass testing was counter-productive and would only provide a “false sense of security”.

Malaysia also does not have the testing capacity for 2 million documented, and the estimated 3 million undocumented migrants in Malaysia, she said. “Some employers may fire workers, rather than pay for tests,” she said.

Instead of mandatory mass testing, the government and employers should invest in safer living and working conditions for migrants and all other employees.

She said local town councils, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Ministry of Human Resources and employers’ groups should come together for practical solutions to solve non-citizens’ housing woes.

Cramped living conditions of migrant workers in Singapore had created a new wave of the pandemic, she said.

Tharani suggested that the government reassure non-citizens about free testing at government health facilities, and also guarantee no further immigration action on those who come forward.

“Trust is essential to ensure non-citizens cooperate with public health authorities,” she said.

A long-term solution was the regularisation of undocumented workers. “Thailand is a unique example in the Asean region, allowing for the regularisation of undocumented migrants by providing nationality verification, work permits and health insurance, at a common centre,” she said.

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