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Southeast Asia's migrant workers face Covid-19 tragedy

Singapore's relapse has exposed the blind spot that threatens to spread the deadly pandemic

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Southeast Asia's migrant workers face Covid-19 tragedy

Myanmar migrant workers prepare a fishing boat in the Thai coastal province of Samut Sakhon. Thailand’s estimated four million migrant workers have been excluded from a government financial support scheme. (Photo: AFP)

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The surprise recent spike in Covid-19 infections, and then deaths, in Singapore has fixed the global spotlight on a subject many governments in Southeast Asia and elsewhere prefer to keep hidden in the shadows: the living and working conditions of their migrant workers.

Singapore had seemed to have the coronavirus pandemic all under control and was being held up alongside Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as the countries that were most effectively “flattening the curve” of Covid-19 by using social distancing and softer self-monitoring lockdowns to slow the spread of the disease alongside higher testing to help early detection.

The admittedly increasingly discredited World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February: "Singapore is leaving no stone unturned, testing every case of influenza-like illness and pneumonia.” Apparently not.

The migrant dormitories used by construction workers, street cleaners, sanitation workers and other workers in the less visible economy that kept the lights on and the wheels turning for the shiny front of the wealthy city-state had been — embarrassingly — something of a blind spot for Singapore authorities as they mapped out their response to the virus.

By April 10, Singapore had new cases down to below 100 a day; a week later, on April 16, new cases had spiked by 728 in a single day.

While Singapore is home to many male migrant workers from neighboring Malaysia and the Indian subcontinent, it also has many mainly female domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines who by and large live in often cramped quarters with their employer families and help make up the city’s 320,000-strong migrant workforce.

The situation in Singapore has raised the issue of what has become of the millions of other migrant workers across the region during the pandemic. These are people who leave their homes, and often their children, to toil away in foreign lands, living as cheaply as they can in order to send as much money home as possible.

In Bangkok, for instance, it’s a commonplace sight to see rickety trucks with construction workers packed like sardines, taking them after a 12-hour shift to dormitories that would make their Singapore equivalents look like five-star hotels. Most are from neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Estimates of the number of foreign migrant workers in Thailand are as high as four million.

Myanmar’s multiple ethnicities are also to be found working in Malaysia along with Indonesians, Bangladeshis and other subcontinentals who make up an official two million-strong migrant workforce. Citizens of the Philippines are working everywhere as domestic helpers and in the hospitality sector where their musicality and grasp of English — thanks to their history of American colonization —  are in high demand.

The stories of tragedy, both immediate and impending, are beginning to flow. In Malaysia, stranded workers have been reported to be struggling, as no doubt they are elsewhere, for basic food. The real possibility of mass starvation is looming.

In Thailand, the government is handing out three-month financial support packages worth 15,000 baht (US$460) to some Thai citizens, yet the scheme does not include migrant workers who form an integral part of Thai society. It’s a situation that is replicated across the region,

Further afield, Asian workers are found by their millions in the Gulf states. As elsewhere, there are strict lockdowns in place, but coronavirus infections are continuing to rise, especially in countries that are home to the most migrants: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi authorities have said that 70-80 percent of new infections are among foreign workers, who of course live in cramped and often slum-like conditions as they work away for their wealthy Arab masters. Like other migrant workers, they were trapped when border restrictions were imposed — not for them an online credit card booking and a dash to catch the last flight home.

Singapore, albeit belatedly, has vowed to look after its foreign workers, but elsewhere they are not so lucky, with a Malaysian minister deflecting their care to “their respective embassies.”

This is potentially a tragedy of epic proportions that could stretch to the Middle East and beyond. Millions of people are broke, marooned at close quarters and at higher risk of infection very far from home — and increasingly hungry.

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