Misplaced priorities in Covid-19 measures for migrants?

There is something to be said about misplaced priorities among Malaysians, not just among the public, but maybe, just maybe, in the administration as well. Of course, this is not a blanket statement, but rather aimed towards a specific issue – that of migrant workers in Malaysia.

It is really difficult to say that the news of a new cluster among the detainees at the immigration detention centre in Bukit Jalil is unexpected, and it just brings home a point that needs to be reiterated again and again.

Covid-19 has been classed as an invisible enemy by the government – it can strike any time, anywhere. So what, pray tell, is the government thinking in going back on its word?

On the one hand, we have strict border controls and are being told the top priority is the eradication of Covid-19 from our shores, but then the other hand goes around and starts something that can only be called counterproductive and detrimental in terms of internal safety.

Following the warning from neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia began to take note of its migrant worker population as a high-risk group for Covid-19, attributed to living and working conditions that most Malaysians would baulk at. The issue also comes back to the fact that Malaysia has always been struggling with undocumented migrant workers, which is now coming back to bite the country in the rear.

With that established, the government enacted the movement control order (MCO) on March 18 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and while this has done wonders in lowering the number of cases in Malaysia and flattening the curve, we are now seeing a slight resurgence in the number of cases detected.

According to Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s update on May 21, 34 out of the 50 new confirmed cases that day are from the migrant worker community, with the number having steadily contributed to the number of confirmed cases over the past few days.

This could have been prevented from the get-go, if the government had stuck to the initial stance of not penalising undocumented workers from presenting themselves for testing. Unfortunately, not long after the initial promise that there will be no penalisation, news spread of workers being arrested and detained.

Beyond the feeling of betrayal, this move has also served to drive migrant workers, whether they arrived undocumented or are now undocumented due to red tape and the MCO, further away from presenting themselves to the Ministry of Health, whether or not they have symptoms.

This “tough” stance has now resulted in 34 detainees at the Bukit Jalil detention centre being infected, even though they have already been there since before the MCO. How can it still be said that health is a priority, considering these infections are happening right under the government’s collective noses, as a result of their own actions?

Speaking of results from their own actions, the number of vehicles on highways are surging with the rush to head back to hometowns for the festive season. Normally, this would not even merit a first glance, what more a second glance, but these are not normal times.

The Ministry of Health has advised over and over again for people, especially those in red zones, not to go back to their hometowns this year. The reason? For fear of those infected being asymptomatic, and putting the health and lives of people in their hometown, especially their loved ones, at risk.

However, from the number of vehicles on the road and the increasing number of cars being forced to turn around on the highways every day, it is exceedingly clear that Malaysians are way smarter than the experts in the Ministry of Health, and believe the ministry to be overly cautious.

What are the odds, they ask? I won’t get it, they say. Friends, this is called the optimism bias, where anything bad “may happen to others, but not to me.” It is also called a bias for a reason, and it is also a cause for people lowering their guard against the invisible enemy.

Yes, visiting is allowed on the first day of Hari Raya, as long as safe social distancing, hand-washing, and no close contact communication are observed. Honestly, I felt a bit of frustration coming from Dr Noor Hisham when he said “the number 20 is relative, don’t think about the number,” and called again for Malaysians to heed a message that has been repeated again and again, to adhere to the guidelines, so that the chain of infection can be broken.

At this point, I can only say that I share that frustration, especially from the pictures of bumper-to-bumper traffic shown on social media. I, for one, would like the country to get back on its feet, thank you very much, and not have to endure having the conditional MCO tightened to MCO levels again.

It’s almost like the lesson is never learned. – May 22, 2020

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